Duke Energy customers in central and western North Carolina could see higher electric bills if a rate hike request is approved. The North Carolina Utilities Commission is holding public hearings on the issue and the next one is Wednesday in Alamance County. This comes as the company recently reached a compromise with the state regulators and environmental groups over coal ash cleanup at remaining sites. There's a lot happening in terms of coal ash, and WFDD's Keri Brown addresses some questions you might have. 

Why is the company asking to raise electric bills?

Duke Energy says the rate hike is needed to help pay for coal ash cleanup, investments in new technology, and upgrades at plants. For example, improvements are underway at the Belews Creek plant in Stokes County. The plant will use both natural gas and coal, which will help reduce the amount of coal ash produced at the site. You've also seen the conversion to gas at other plants like Asheville.

Overall, the company estimates the price tag will be $8 billion to $9 billion to close its basins in the Carolinas and move most of the ash to lined landfills. Duke Energy says it has already spent around $2.4 billion.

What are environmentalists and residents near these sites saying about the proposed rate increase?

Consumer advocate groups say they're concerned because many customers are already saddled with rising power bills. If the full amount is approved, the average residential customer would pay around $97.00 more per year.

They say the company knew about leaking ash ponds for years and it should foot the bill.

Duke Energy says it's followed industry storage practices that state and federal regulators have known about and argues that the cost to flip the light switch is getting more expensive as demand for electricity grows and they move to other energy technologies.

When can we expect a decision on the rate request?

We should see a decision sometime this year. The state Utilities Commission will wrap up these public hearings and hold an evidentiary hearing in March. This is where they will collect more testimony and hear cross-examination of expert witnesses.

The commission approved two rate increases in 2018. Although, they weren't as large as the company had originally requested. We will see what happens because those decisions are being appealed to the state supreme court.

In the past, the commission has said if it's an upgrade in response to state or federal legislation, then yes, that makes sense as a customer cost. In this case, the basin closures were mandated.

Also, there are some new faces on the Utilities Commission, so that could have some impact there as well.

Recently, Duke Energy reached a compromise with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and advocacy groups on remaining ash basins. How important is this to communities like Belews Creek?

This settlement is a very big deal. The state describes it as the largest coal ash cleanup in the nation's history.

The agreement says Duke Energy will dig up 80 million tons of coal ash at the remaining six sites. It will be moved to onsite, to double-lined landfills. This includes Belews Creek. The agreement also includes monitoring wells and other requirements to protect groundwater.

David Hairston lives in Walnut Cove, a community near the plant. He's concerned about the impact of toxic substances from coal ash – and is excited about the settlement.

“Overjoyed for the next generation that hopefully won't have to go through some things that I had to live through as a child and some of my other friends that are no longer with us. As soon as they get started and get it done, the community can start healing,” says Hairston.

How long will the excavation process take at Belews Creek?

To give this some perspective, the company says it can remove around a million tons of coal ash per year. So, it's estimated to take around eleven years at Belews Creek. Across the state, it will depend on each site.

The ash has to dry out, not to mention the prep work and landfill construction. It's a long process. It will move forward once the state approves the closure plans and landfill permits. The public can weigh in on Duke Energy's final closure plans. DEQ is holding public hearings for this in February.

The ash will move to onsite landfills on property the company owns, so Duke Energy says the excavation process will be easier for everyone.

So does this agreement put the coal ash debate to rest?

For the most part, yes. But we will have to see who is going to pay for most of the cleanup. Is it the company, shareholders, customers? DEQ has to approve the closure plans and landfill permits. It will take a long time to close and people want to make sure the removal process is done with oversight and carefully and these landfills are monitored for years to come.

Coal is still an important part of the energy grid and the waste ultimately has to go somewhere. There's also a lot of recycling of coal ash at Belews Creek and other Duke Energy plants. It's used in the construction industry to make concrete and other products.

Residents in communities near coal ash sites tell me that even though it will be stored with a safer method, they still have concerns. Residents like David Hairston say they will never fully trust the air quality or their drinking water, because of everything they've been through over the years. They would like to see some sort of medical study in their neighborhood.

It's not only going to take a long time to remove all of this ash, but it's also going to take a long time to build back trust in these communities. Overall, this settlement is a big win for all of the stakeholders involved here. 

*Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news

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