Power bills may be highest ever for Duke customers

CHARLOTTE -- Courtenay Schreibeis and her husband keep their newly built northwest Charlotte home at a crisp 68 degrees, creating a cocoon of cool comfort that is costing them more than ever this month.

Their Duke Energy power bill, which arrived just last week, was about $140 -- nearly double the $72 from last month, Courtenay said.

Rick Rhodes, an area bank employee, said his August bill is usually around $70 but spiked to $120 this year -- more than a 70 percent increase.

Their sticker shock is part of the first wave of bills predicted to be the highest ever for many of Duke's 2.3 million Carolinas customers. As a group, the customers have been using record amounts of electricity this month as they've stayed inside and turned up air conditioners during the three-week heat wave.

"We were floored by how much it had gone up. My thought was first: 'How am I going to pay for a bill that goes up that much in 30 days?'" she said. "We're not running a factory. We have a lot of windows, and the house can't keep up with the heat outside."

The bill covers part of July and the first half of August, a stretch of record heat that has wilted the sturdy and is taxing air conditioners and pocketbooks.

Duke doesn't want to predict what the average bill will be this month.

The average for July was 20 percent higher than June, and bills have been trending up in the Charlotte region. Homes have gotten larger, and consumers are buying more electronics, such as power-hungry plasma screen tele- visions. Duke has been adding about 50,000 new customers a year for the past five years and is anxious to build new power plants to meet growing demand.

Crisis assistance up

The August power bill spike has increased business for Crisis Assistance Ministry, a private nonprofit that offers help for people who can't pay their utility bills. The agency has been handling up to 100 interviews daily since July and has been turning away dozens lined up outside the building because there're not enough hours in the day to see everyone, said director Patrick Graham. Renee Caldwell, 31, of Matthews was at the agency Tuesday looking for help to keep her electricity on. She has four young boys and has been unemployed for nearly a year, she said.

Caldwell and others seeking help at the ministry arrived at 7:45 a.m. and waited in line for a number. When their number was called, they got an appointment.

"I hate it," she said, "because you don't know if they're going to help you or not, but you have to wait all day."

Beth Maynard, who is Caldwell's caseworker, said the sharply higher August bills are coming just as families need extra money for school supplies and clothing for their children.

Caldwell is in those straits, but she and her children must have air conditioning, she said. "Fans just ain't gonna do it -- not this summer."

Caldwell ended up receiving help covering her June and July bills. About 97 percent of those interviewed at the ministry get help.

High heat stops shut-offs

Duke Energy stops disconnecting power for nonpayment when it gets too hot and air conditioning is deemed essential. Duke stops shut-offs when the heat index, a measure of temperature and humidity, reaches 105. Duke suspended disconnections Aug. 7 through 10. It's a regulation in South Carolina and voluntary in North Carolina, Duke spokeswoman Mary Katherine Green said.

Duke has staff ready for a spike in customer service calls about the high bills, but it doesn't expect a huge rush, Green said.

Duke Energy suggests signing up for its equal payment plan, which allows customers to pay the same amount for 11 months and then settle up the difference in the final month.

The Public Staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission, the consumer advocacy arm of the commission, said it expects a spate of complaints starting at the end of August. That's when most N.C. residents will have received power bills covering the heat wave, said Carl Goolsby, director of the staff's consumer services division.

Customers can sign up now and pay a lower fixed rate in place of the August bill. Any customer can inspect their Duke Energy power bill online at www.duke-energy.com. Customers can see a comparison of their current bill's usage compared with the same month last year.

Customers can see the temperature averages for the month, cost to power their entire home for a day and the amount of electricity used.

Duke also encourages anyone to take the Duke online energy audit, which takes about five minutes to complete and renders a 13-page report on ways to save money and energy.