Duke Energy asked state regulators Friday to approve a nearly $2 billion upgrade of its Indiana electric grid, improvements the utility said would help reduce power outages by adding "self-healing" smart technologies to the grid.
Duke is Indiana's largest electric utility, with more than 800,000 customers. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company asked the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in Friday's filing to approve a seven-year, $1.9 billion plan to replace substations, utility poles, power lines, transformers and other aging parts of its electric grid. That upgrade would include installing new, advanced utility meters the company said would mean fewer and shorter electrical outages for its customers.
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Duke said that while it transmits power in much the same method as it did a century ago, newer technologies allow utilities to automatically detect power interruptions such as when a tree comes into contact with a power line and limit outages by rerouting power around problem areas.
"With advanced systems, we can pinpoint problems faster and get the lights on sooner while providing customers with better information," Duke Energy Indiana President Doug Esamann said in a statement.
If regulators approve the $1.9 billion plan, Duke said its Indiana customers would see rate increases averaging about 1 percent per year between 2016 and 2022.
Kerwin Olson, the executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, said the consumer advocacy group is still reviewing Duke's plan, but would definitely oppose some elements, including the proposed rate increases. Olson said Duke's those would harm the elderly, the disabled and people on fixed incomes.
"If you look at low-income data, calls to 211 for utility assistance are now outpacing calls for food and shelter, so there's obviously a lot of folks out there struggling to pay their bills," he said. "We intend to make that part of this conversation."
Duke said it expects an IURC decision on its request next spring following hearings. If approved, the company estimates the project would support more than 5,000 Indiana jobs during the seven-year project.
Duke said the new technologies would eliminate the need for employees to read customers' electric meters in person because that data could be read remotely.
Electrical service could also be turned on or off remotely when a customer moves — technology that also would allow Duke to identify customers who have lost power without relying on them to report an outage.
Duke filed its proposal under provisions of a 2013 Indiana law that allows utilities to submit seven-year infrastructure improvement plans with the IURC. If such projects are approved, the utility can seek to pass onto its customers 80 percent of the project's cost.
The company could then seek to pass the remaining 20 percent onto its customers during its next base rate case, which must be filed before the end of the seven-year project.