CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Duke Energy announced Thursday the company will continue to avoid shutting off electricity for the most at-risk families through March of 2022.
The announcement came just a day before Duke Energy's limited disconnection ban was set to end.
State records show the North Carolina Utilities Commission's customer advocates started receiving more complaints in the months leading up to that last-minute decision. NCUC records show the number of complaints received by the agency's customer advocates started increasing again in July and August, reaching their highest numbers since February.
"We never want to see the number of complaints rise, but we know that there is always opportunities to look at the data, figure out where those issues may arise and address them before they can increase," Duke Energy Communications Consultant Pam Hardy said. "So, we're always looking for opportunities to improve and to address the needs of the customers and we'll continue to do that."
Abby Melo didn't realize NCUC had employees available to speak up on a customer's behalf. She reached out to WCNC Charlotte with concerns about a billing issue.
"The bills are never accurate," she said.
WCNC Charlotte connected the Mooresville woman with Duke directly. In order to keep the lights on, she had to agree to a payment plan to reduce her more than $1,000 balance over the course of the next year..
"I got sick to my stomach. I literally got nauseous," Melo said about the threat of losing power. "I'm broke, I can't afford to pay almost another $100 every month. I'm praying to God that everything is going to be OK. I don't have a plan. I really don't have a Plan B."
Her situation, while not ideal, is better than the outcome for thousands of others. NCUC filings show Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas remote disconnections for non-payment started again in recent months. Duke Energy Carolinas reported 184 disconnections in July and 593 in August, up from zero in June. Duke Energy Progress, meanwhile, reported 8,054 in July and 8,165 in August, up from 4,690 in June.
The latest numbers from Duke Energy Carolinas show more than 139,000 customers, that's 7.7%, behind on their payments by at least 60 days and 76,939, or 4.3%, currently on payment plans. Duke Energy Progress reports more than 19,000 customers (1.5%) are behind at least 60 days and 44,870 (3.6%) customers are currently on payment plans.
Hardy said disconnections are a last resort.
"We really want to find out what we can do to support the customer," she said. "That's something that we want to avoid at all costs if possible."
Hardy said the company wants to work with customers, by way of payment arrangements, so they can avoid shut-offs.
"We're here, we're listening and we want to resolve it," she added. "We will continue to work with our customers."
Hardy said Duke Energy would also prefer customers try to resolve their problems directly with the company before taking them to NCUC.
"We're there for them," she said. "We support them."
WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to the Defenders team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hardy said the company's internal data shows 50% fewer complaints in North Carolina from January 2021 to August 2021 compared to the same timeframe in 2019, before the pandemic.
In addition to offering payment plans, Hardy said Duke Energy is continuing to waive credit card fees for payments in an effort to help customers' money go as far as it can.
Hardy said if customers need additional support, they can call (800) 777-9898 between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Duke Energy's extended disconnection moratorium is specifically for Crisis Intervention Program, Low-Income Energy Assistance Program and NC Hope customers, Hardy said.
Wake Up Charlotte To Go is a daily news and weather podcast you can listen to so you can start your day with the team at Wake Up Charlotte.
SUBSCRIBE: Apple Podcasts || Spotify || Stitcher || TuneIn || Google Podcasts
All of WCNC Charlotte's podcasts are free and available for both streaming and download. You can listen now on Android, iPhone, Amazon, and other internet-connected devices. Join us from North Carolina, South Carolina, or on the go anywhere.