Marshall Gangel is a details guy.

Why else would anyone read a monthly bill from Duke Energy so closely that he can now cite how much the company charges per kilowatt hour?

Or reel off a list of “riders” — varying monthly add-on charges allowed by law — down to the decimal point and penny tacked onto each month’s bill?

And then sit down to do the math to try and figure out exactly how much he’s paying per month?

And more importantly, why?

“Over the course of a year, these mystery fees have cost me $67 which isn’t a lot,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But apply this across all homes in (North Carolina) and it becomes big money.”

Doing the math

Gangel is the first to admit that his quest to learn more about the pennies, percentages and fees buried down deep in his Duke Energy bill seems a little, shall we say obsessive.

But then again, we all might be better off if we followed his example. My old man wasn’t wrong in all his harangues and bromides about managing money.

(“Mind your pennies and dollars take care of themselves. … A penny saved is a penny earned. … A fool and his money make for a hell of party.” … The old man really had a way with words and clichés.)

Gangel, an analytical, left-brained kind of guy approaching 40, says he first took a deeper interest in his Duke bill when he started trying to track the energy used by various appliances in his house.

“You put a unit on the breaker box in the house and it will ‘listen’ to all the current coming into the house and make predictions on what will use the most energy, the refrigerator, the stove, the washing machine,” he said.

I pretended to understand what he was talking about and we proceeded from there. Gangel explained that led him to investigate places in his house where he might cut down on energy usage — money — and that in turn had him checking the fine print on his monthly statement. “Reverse engineer my Duke Energy bill,” he called it in an e-mail.

He used rate information published on Duke’s Website — www.dukeenergy.com/hom/billing/rates — and found that his bill was being calculated at 9.1 cents per kilowatt hour instead of 8.7179 cents.

Gangel asked friends to do the same math, and found their rates were higher than advertised, too. And because he was that far in, Gangel decided to invest more time calling the company looking for an answer.

“I called Duke Energy 3 times and spent at least 2 hours on the phone with their billing department,” he wrote in an email.

The best explanation he could find was that the fees were “various riders” but couldn’t be more specific. Gangel did see that his bill had a “Renewable Energy Rider” as a line item on the bill but nothing else.

“It’s possible there’s a perfectly logical explanation and I just found the one representative that one day who didn’t have the answer,” Gangel said in a subsequent phone conversation. “I’d just like to know.”

Vetted and approved

The short answer to Gangel’s very specific question about riders is that … wait for it … it’s complicated.

Jimmy Flythe, Duke Energy’s director of government and community relations for the West Region, provided an answer. (Try squeezing that title on a business card.)

“All of our rate information is on our website and all is approved by the NC Utilities Commission after thorough review,” he wrote in an email. “The details can be somewhat complicated.”

And how.

The renewable energy rider is really a thing and it’s a per account charge for 87 cents and is included on the bill.

The other riders, which are calculated per kilowatt hour and “adjusted periodically,” Flythe wrote, include a REPS (Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard) charge for the cost of expanding the use of solar and renewable energy; a DSM/EE Adjustment (Demand Side Management and Energy Efficiency) to recover the cost of offering those programs to customers; and Fuel Rate Adjustment to recover the cost of natural gas, uranium and oil to generate electricity.

Did you catch all that? Me, neither.

The bottom line is that those “various riders” have been vetted by the state Utilities Commission and Duke Energy is allowed to charge them.

They’re similar to requests the company has made to recoup some of an estimated $9.6 billion in costs associated with cleaning up coal ash at Duke plants and in state waterways.

Lawyers have argued about how much of that should be passed along to consumers. Duke is collecting $175 million annually from some 3.4 million customer accounts in North Carolina for coal-ash costs.

Eventually we’ll forget about the coal-ash mess until some sharp-eyed guy reads his electric bill and begins to question riders and surcharges that, when multiplied by millions of customers, add up to real money.

And our only option will be to pay it or live in a cave.

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ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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