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Duke Energy may buy NC city shares of power agency

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Duke Energy is negotiating to buy ownership in nuclear and coal-burning electric power plants that have saddled more than 30 eastern North Carolina municipalities with high electric bills to pay off construction costs, the nation's largest electric company said Monday.

Duke Energy said an operating subsidiary is negotiating with the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency about buying out its share of power plants previously shared with the former Progress Energy. Duke Energy bought Progress Energy in 2012.

The municipal agency has partial ownership interests in the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in Wake County, the Brunswick Nuclear Plant in Brunswick County and the two coal-burning power plants in Person County.

A deal is intended to cut power costs paid by homes and businesses in the more than 30 eastern North Carolina municipalities including Greenville, Rocky Mount, Wilson, Lumberton and Elizabeth City that invested in the plants, said Rebecca Agner, a spokeswoman ElectriCities of North Carolina, the trade association that manages the municipal power agency.

"We do expect that if this sale was complete, that the participants would immediately be more cost-competitive," Agner said.

Duke Energy said in a statement any deal would take months to negotiate and gain regulatory approval. Duke Energy last week ended its bid to buy up to 10 percent of a South Carolina nuclear power plant from that state's publically owned utility after more than two years of negotiations. Santee Cooper instead sold part of its stake in the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station to SCANA Corp. for about $500 million.

The cities invested decades ago into building the power plants only to see costs — and their debt — escalate beyond projections. The average monthly residential electric bill for people living in the cities accountable for the debt was about a third higher than similar Progress Energy customers in 2012, according to ElectriCities.

If Duke Energy and the municipal agency reach a deal, the two entities would sign a wholesale power contract to supplying electricity to the 270,000 customers who get their electricity from NCEMPA.

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