PINNACLE, N.C. — Joy White gets her 7-year-old daughter on a school bus. Her husband, a butcher at a grocery store in Winston-Salem, heads to work. All the while, the lights in their double-wide mobile home get little use. The dryer remains unrepaired, and she grills food with a 40-pound bag of charcoal that a friend has given her.
The dryer sucks too much power, anyway. The oven, too.
The specter of being disconnected won’t allow the usual conveniences.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Duke Energy, which posted nearly $25 billion in revenues last year, slapped the White family with a penalty deposit of more than $524 after she underpaid her power bill twice this summer. The deposit charge is about twice the amount of the normal power bill, which runs anywhere between $200 and $240 a month.
White, a self-described conservative, does not bang a drum against Corporate America. Capitalism is just fine with her. And she wants to pay her bill. But a $524 penalty deposit is out of line, she said Tuesday.
To cover what the Whites owe Duke Energy, they’ll have to hand over almost a month’s salary.
“It just seems unfair. They’re targeting poor people. If I had the money to pay the entire bill, I wouldn’t have this deposit. I just don’t understand how this is even legal,” White said, sitting in her kitchen, the latest power bill lying on the table in front of her. “More than likely, there are a 1,000 more me’s out there.”
Duke Energy has gotten a fair chunk of change from the White family over the years.
Before White lived in the home, her in-laws had lived there since 1984. All those years, all those power bills were paid. Money got tight this summer, White said. So she paid what she could — $150 of a $200 bill, for example. When she has tried to call Duke, she says she went through a maze of automated responses.
Now, with the $524 deposit tacked on, the Whites must pay $786 by Sept. 26 to keep from being disconnected. To cover the entire debt, they must pay $1,015, according to a power bill she provided.
Duke spokeswoman Kristina Hill could not immediately talk about any specific account without a waiver.
“Unlike many other service providers, Duke Energy bills for service after it is used. We require deposits from customers who chronically carry past due balances and generally pay their bills right before their services are scheduled for disconnection due to nonpayment,” Hill said in an email.
Jim Warren, the executive director of the energy-watchdog group NC WARN, expressed little surprise when told about White’s bill.
“Over the years, it’s clear that Duke has crafted a lucrative profit center by penalizing its customers, often those who can least afford it,” Warren said.
The Winston-Salem Journal asked the N.C. Utilities Commission and Duke Energy about the practice of charging deposits. The questions: How does Duke Energy calculate deposits; when did Duke started charging them; when is a customer allowed to recover his or her deposit; how much money does Duke Energy Carolinas hold in these types of deposits; and how much for the entire operation in all six states.
It’s unclear how many other customers are out there such as White. Responding to the last two questions on the amount of deposits held by Duke, Hill declined to provide specific information.
“While we do not release to the public financials related to deposits, our deposit requirements follow the rules and regulations of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, and are designed to treat all customers in a fair and consistent manner,” she said in an email.
As it turns out, utilities have been allowed since 1970 to charge the deposit that White now faces, according to information provided by Nicholas Jeffries, the director of the Public Staff’s Consumer Services Division, which is part of the state Utilities Commission.
They can charge as much as two month’s worth of bills, according to state rules governing utilities.
“No utility shall require a deposit to establish or reestablish service in an amount in excess of two-twelfths of the estimated charge for the service for the ensuing twelve months,” Jeffries said.
“For example, if the customer’s average monthly bill amount for 12 months is 250.00 — the utility would multiply that amount by 2 for a deposit amount of no more than 500.”
Consumers can get back their deposit after establishing good credit — when a consumer has not been disconnected for nonpayment or late more than twice in a 12-month period.