- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The General Assembly did its part Wednesday to expedite a power deal between Duke Energy Progress and more than 30 eastern North Carolina cities and towns that is expected to lower electric bills for their residents.

By a unanimous vote, the House gave final legislative approval to a bill that helps firm up the agreement announced last summer in which the utility would purchase the municipalities’ electricity-generating capacity for $1.2 billion. The measure passed the Senate last week. It now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk. The governor plans to sign the bill Thursday, spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said by email.

Eastern North Carolina lawmakers have been thrilled about the measure stemming from the deal that had been discussed off and on for more than a decade involving the 32 municipalities under the Electricities banner. After all the regulatory hurdles are passed, up to 270,000 consumers could see electric rates decline at least 10 or 15 percent, beginning as early as this fall, according to legislators.

Heavy debt loads from investments in coal-fired and nuclear power plants since the late 1970s have kept electric costs 20 percent to 50 percent higher than what other utility customers face. That has hurt low-income residents and communities seeking to attract new business, officials said.

Large cities under Electricities include Rocky Mount, Wilson, Greenville, Lumberton and Elizabeth City.

“All of North Carolina wins because a major impediment to economic development in 32 municipalities is greatly decreased by this deal,” said Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, during debate on the House floor earlier this week.

The legislation gives the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency, which officially owns the generating capacity in five coal-fired and nuclear plants being sold back to Duke Energy Progress, the ability to issue new bonds to help pay off what the cash value of the debt the agreement doesn’t cover, or about $600 million.

The measure also would require Duke Energy Progress to recover the transaction’s costs over 20 to 30 years, which lawmakers say would help all of the utility’s ratepayers.

“It’s a win-win situation for all of us going forward,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, a Baptist minister who said he’s seen congregants in Electricities towns face huge power payments. “There are some people that have to decide between food and medicine sometime to pay the light bills,” Pierce added.

Federal regulators have already agreed to the deal. The North Carolina Utilities Commission still must sign off, but the measure largely lays the groundwork for the state panel’s approval.

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