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Rhode Islanders testify against electric rate hikes at PUC
But if history is a guide, these rates will be approved...
On Wednesday evening the Public Utilities Commission heard public testimony, in person and remotely, on a proposed rate increase from Rhode Island Energy. According to Stephanie Briggs, Senior Manager of Revenue and Regulatory Affairs for Rhode Island Energy, “the cumulative electric monthly bill impact of all of the filings” means that “ a residential last resort service customer who uses 500-kilowatt hours a month would see an increase of $33.38 on their monthly bill, which amounts to a 24.9% increase and a customer on the low-income rate, receiving a 25% discount would see an increase of $25.03 on their monthly bill.” The rate, if approved, will go into effect on October 1. There will also be a much smaller decrease in gas utility prices.
For the entire testimony of Stephanie Briggs, see this footnote.1
What follows is a transcription of the testimony from Rhode Islanders, all but one of whom spoke against the rate increase. (And I’m pretty sure the one person speaking in favor of the rate increase was being sarcastic.)
Nyoka Powell, the Republican candidate in the Senate District One Special Election: My concern with what is happening is that we're going into a very uncertain time. We've been in and out of a very trying pandemic. We were here last October as well, and the increases that happened last October were very hard on many families in the north end of Providence. I can attest to that.
I understand that the company needs to move forward with a lot of the energy initiatives that we're doing, but another increase right now is not going to help at all. I understand you have a lot of available programs, but I think that the way companies work in the State of Rhode Island is that we keep creating different programs as opposed to just solving the problem.
The problem is that people can't afford another increase in their bills. Corporations can't afford another increase. Maybe because of staffing shortages, maybe because people are unemployed, there's a lot that's going into factoring for the cost of living going into winter. The increase is going to decimate a lot of families.
Our homelessness rate in Providence will be around the same that it was last year and I have to think about those kinds of things as I'm running for Senate. Those are the issues people are coming to me with and those are the problems that I'll have to try and figure out as well. Having another increase, right before the winter starts, is not going to work out very well for many families. I understand the creation of programs. I understand that you have the different programs that you talked about, the energy efficiency program, the budget billing, this COVID-19 agreement, the discount rate classes, and the arrearage program. Those are a lot of programs.
So to increase the bill on people who perhaps don't utilize those programs in hopes of getting them into the program is only feeding the problem. It's not solving anything because then we have to come back here and we have to keep moving things around. We need to make sure it works for the people who are paying the bills.
State Representative David Morales (Democrat, District 7, Providence): First and foremost, I want to thank the commission for hosting this meeting on a weekday, after work hours. This is an improvement from last year because, as you may all recall, last year when we were discussing rate hikes for last fall it was happening on a Friday morning when a lot of working people just weren't able to access and visit the meeting. Unfortunately, today the weather has stopped a lot of people from being able to go out and drive out to Warwick. So I want us to be conscientious of the fact that the public is not being represented at this meeting in the way that we would like them to be. I do appreciate the Zoom option, but again, for folks, especially some of our seniors and those who rely on public transportation, there are often barriers related to technology. I just wanted to preface with that.
Similar to last year, I'm here to express my concern and opposition to Rhode Island Energy's proposed great hikes. If they're approved by this commission, whose purpose is to look out for the general interest of the public, then starting in October, as stated, residential customers are going to see an increase of 24% in their monthly electricity bill and that's going to be an additional $32 on their monthly bill. And the frustrating aspect of this is that almost every fall people across our state face an increasing cost of their electricity services.
Since taking ownership of our utility system, Rhode Island Energy has proposed, over two consecutive years, egregious, record-setting rate hikes that have hurt thousands of Rhode Islanders. Thousands of Rhode Islanders are now behind on their utility bills and are experiencing debt. Even if they're enrolled in a budget plan, they are in utility debt. I know some neighbors who have been on the verge of having their utility services shut off. I want to emphasize that while I was not the biggest fan or advocate for National Grid, even when we had National Grid in place, very little did we ever see them put forward proposals that increased electricity rates by more than 20%. Their rate hike proposals were much more modest than what we have seen from Rhode Island Energy in the last two years. The reality is that Rhode Island Energy continues to grow within their profit and we're talking billions of dollars. That is a billion with a B.
It is absurd that Rhode Island Energy goes to the press and puts out a communication that these rate heights are inevitable because it has become clear over the last two years, since coming to Rhode Island, that Rhode Island Energy values its shareholders and preserving profit over the actual customers who depend on utility services. I want to quote Rhode Island Energy President David Bonenberger who claimed back in June, when Rhode Island Energy initially put out the press release about these rate hikes, and I quote, "We will continue to work with state leaders on other ways to help the most vulnerable." Here we are, the PUC is about to vote on whether to approve these rate hikes, and I can tell you for a fact that Rhode Island Energy has not approached state leaders within the executive branch or the legislature on how we can support people who are falling behind on their electricity bills.
I ask that the PUC vote against Rhode Island Energy's proposal and in opposition to increasing electricity rates for the fall.
I want to note that we continue to reference the gross receipts tax that we passed within the fiscal year 2024 state budget as a means of relief, but let's not kid ourselves. That is not a sustainable solution and it is very minimal in terms of what the gross tax savings look like for a working person. In other words, they're not even going to notice it within their bill. I would ask us to stop referencing that gross receipt tax as actual relief and I also want to know: If the state of Rhode Island is willing to give up that level of taxation, that means we're going to have a hole in our revenues, which we are willing to do because we wanted to provide some support to working people, then I would expect the same commitment from the for-profit Rhode Island Energy company. If the government is willing to say, "We're going to suspend a tax even if it hurts our general revenue because we care about people in our state," then I would hope that Rhode Island Energy can go back to their shareholders and say, "Our profit's going to stay stagnant because we want to protect our customers who depend and rely on our utility services."
Representative Morales also presented written testimony to the PUC2
Mary Pendergast: I didn't expect to be speaking, but I'm glad to tell you that this [rate increase] is just not possible for the vast majority of Rhode Island people. It's just not possible. I come before you telling you that is the truth. Please do not raise rates again on your Rhode Island citizens.
We work two or three jobs and we're still forced by Rhode Island Energy and the Public Utilities Commission to choose between paying for food or paying our utility bills.
Juan Palo Ocampo: I am a Rhode Island resident and I ask you to stop the increase. We're struggling so hard right now, so many of us. We're not defaulting because we're lazy. Every poor person I know works as hard, or way harder, than every person on the Commission. We work two or three jobs and we're still forced by Rhode Island Energy and the Public Utilities Commission to choose between paying for food or paying our utility bills. We are forced to choose between a termination or an eviction. LIHEAP is not enough. What we need is a fair utility rate. We need a Percentage of Income Payment Plan and we need you to stop this increase and stop treating poor people as the enemy.
If you do this increase, you will be throwing thousands more to the streets. If you vote yes, the only human explanation is that you are trying to kill us, that you want poor people to be homeless so that we can be attacked, so that we can be in more danger, so that we can be out of your sight, either hiding in the streets or jail. Stop fighting us. Stop fighting the poor. Help us fight poverty and stop, for the love of God, this ridiculous increase that is going to hurt me, my family, and thousands more.
Timothy Fischer: I'm here today speaking in opposition to these rate hikes. I'm a licensed clinical social worker in Rhode Island and for several years worked with people who are either facing housing instability or experiencing homelessness. Much like what Juan Pablo alluded to, there are very real consequences to each of these rate hikes whether or not Rhode Island Energy pitches them as minimal or not serious or claims that these other areas will take care of people experiencing these rate hikes. Those are all excuses, and it's difficult to listen to that year after year when I've been witness to the real-life consequences of each of these hikes over the years. That seems to be the routine here.
I would need more than my two hands, several times over, to give you the number of people I've worked with who have either lost their housing and become homeless because of falling behind on their utilities or are trying to obtain subsidized public housing, in which case nearly all of the time you need to be able to put an electricity bill in your name. What happens is that debt follows people and what that results in is an elderly person whose home was purchased by a landlord, their rent raised far beyond their means to be able to afford it, applying for local subsidized housing that they were prioritized for due to their age, due to their disability, got to the top of the waitlist, were ready to pay that rent for a safe, affordable place to live, but utility debt held them back.
What I've seen, well over several dozen times, is that they could not get those utilities put in their name and therefore they are skipped over and [the housing] given it to the next person on the waitlist, and they're unable to resolve their episode of homelessness. This happens all the time, but here at the Commission, you may not see it. I'm here today, speaking in opposition to yet another rate hike, and just want to provide some context for the real-life consequences of these irresponsible, repeated, and unjust rate hikes.
Daniel Benitez: I'm a high school student from Pawtucket. I don't agree with the rate increase because utilities are already expensive and there are many expenses that my family spends a lot of money on - food, medical, gas, et cetera, and they are all necessary for survival. We can't afford a rate increase in electricity. We can't keep up anymore. It's a lot of money that we have to pay. With rent more expensive people don't have enough money because electricity is getting higher and where can we find another way or how can we pay it because of that rate increase? I don't agree with it. We can't survive it all the time since everything's getting more expensive. One day there won’t be enough money to pay for an emergency for somebody who needs it. We can't afford it. We need a response that is good for the population.
I'm a mother of four. I just don't know how many more jobs I can work. I can barely pay my electric bill now. How many jobs do you think that we can work?
Jessica Marie Burton: I'm a mother of four. I remember the last time that I was in this room. It was filled for the last increase. There were a lot of people here. It went on all day. I'm sure you guys remember. Strangely, that was ignored.
Because of the weather, today this room is empty. Hopefully, the Zoom fills up. This is ridiculous. Again, I'm a mother of four. I just don't know how many more jobs I can work. I can barely pay my electric bill now. How many jobs do you think that we can work? Everything is increasing. I just don't understand. What is the reason for the increase? We're not getting any difference in service. Everyone has solar now, so it makes it easier for you to spread the electricity to everybody, right? Isn't that the purpose? I'm trying to understand exactly what the reason is, other than making it harder for people in Rhode Island to survive.
I'm going to stand here and ask you to please not increase this. Rhode Islanders cannot afford to go through another winter of struggling between food, buying stuff for their children, and paying the electric bill. What happens then is that Rhode Islanders can go through the winter and not pay the bill because you can't shut it off. But in the summertime, it gets shut off. And it's a result of the increases. You look at a customer and say, "Hey, are you going to pay your bill? We have to shut your services off." People can't pay for it. If it was affordable, they'd be able to pay it and you wouldn't be shutting anything off.
Nicholas Morrell: I wasn't prepared to say anything today, but as you all know, everybody's struggling to pay much for everything. I'm a mechanic. I'm working at a body shop. I make decent money. I'm still struggling. Shouldn't be like that. People are working two or three jobs. People have no personal life anymore. Nobody goes out, nobody can afford anything. You know what I mean? What's the point of shutting people up? You're not making any money from it. People can't pay you. If they can't afford it, they're not going to pay. Where are you making money? I mean, this doesn't make any sense. Are we getting better electricity? Is it costing you any more money to put that electricity out? Why are we going to pay more?
Devang Bhatt: I live with my mother. She's been working for decades and she barely makes enough to afford the current increase, which was extremely surprising for us. This is the year that we probably used the least amount of electricity and because it wasn't even the usage that was the primary reason for the increase, it was delivery charges and whatnot. The fact that the state wants to increase it again is just unfathomable to me. Like a lot of Rhode Islanders, we struggle daily just to maintain what we are currently paying for with utilities. I understand that this is a small state, but the fact that people struggle so much just to make ends meet and the fact the state wants to increase it again is just ridiculous.
I can't imagine the fact that people are going through so much nowadays with the job market and all that and the inflation in food prices. The fact that this is happening along with the inflation is pretty alarming, to say the least. It's amazing. Electricity is necessary, whether it's for education or work, whether it's working from home or just finding work. I can't imagine going without it. Granted, I've grown up always using electricity, especially in this education system where everything was switched over from books to using technology. So it's not just the fact that we have to have electricity, but also maintain some sort of internet connection, just to be able to stay connected. When you lose a job, you find a job through career websites. Everyone's on Indeed or LinkedIn nowadays. I stand for anyone who's struggling because we can't afford it anymore.
Vishwa Bhatt: My son just spoke about it. Electricity is a necessity. We need it. But the rate increase, no, I don't agree. It's hard just to maintain what we have right now. We need electricity in the wintertime to use appliances. I don't approve of this and I can't afford it either. It's very tough just right now.
With Rhode Island Energy, there are so many different charges that even with the budget plan, my bill went up to over $500. I'm struggling to pay that down. They said I was short. I had to pay two months already. This is the third month. I still have to pay. I'm getting off the budget plan. I should be qualified for low income. But I don't know. I hope I do because I can't afford this right now. That's all I have to say. This is very hard already. I hope you consider that.
Gil Wilson: I'm here protesting about the electric rates. I understand that you have to raise it but right now I'm at the point where I either pay my rent, lights, my medical, and all the extra expenses that they're trying to put onto us. I know it's unfair, but what can we do? I just hope they can work with the people who are unfortunate, and who can't afford the electric bill. I can't even go to the store and buy food right now because everything is so expensive and when you're on a fixed income, and sick on top of it, it's overwhelming. I hope they can work with the poor and give us a break.
Sid Dominic: I'm calling in to speak against the [electric] increase. This $33 or more a month is not something that is just going to appear for the people who have to pay this [electric] increase. If you're privileged enough to not have to think about that $33 a month extra for a payment, you might not realize that [for some people that] could be a missed meal, a missed bus ticket, anything that you can imagine. When you think about $33 and how destabilizing that can become for a family that's struggling or for just an individual who's just barely getting by and they've done everything they can do to keep their lights on for themselves, for their families, and that rug is once again being pulled out from under them by Rhode Island Energy.
I want to thank you for this opportunity to say that I stand firmly against this rate coming from Rhode Island Energy as it's not just or fair. It exploits the impoverished in our Rhode Island communities and they deserve much better than this. So we push to stop the rate increase for the good of all Rhode Islanders.
Pat Ford: What I'd like to say today has nothing to do with any of you. I'm not here to impugn anyone's integrity in this building, but there's a common thread here in Rhode Island government and that is there are repeated actions that taken by governmental bodies. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, the Rhode Island Board of Elections, and the Rhode Island Public Utility Commissions. And there are two commonalities between them.
They've had material negative impacts on the lives of Rhode Islanders in recent weeks, whether it be the elimination of the free R-Line; whether it be these rate hikes, which to many seem arbitrary and capricious; whether it be determining who gets to be on the ballot or not; whether it's any one of several daily burdens that the middle class and working poor have to shoulder.
The other commonality is that they are being performed and being foisted upon Rhode Islanders by organizations that are neither elected nor representative of the people who are the victims, if you will. Perhaps unintended, these appointed bureaucracies have no direct connection whatsoever to the electorate. As a result, they operate, to a large degree, with perhaps well-intended, but very often negative impunity. It's time that Rhode Islanders take this moment and understand that you'll make your decision and anyone who's attended any one of these meetings over the last few years will realize that the decision may have no connection to the reality of ordinary working Rhode Islanders, and that sadly, there's no accountability for this board other than through the usual suspects who run this state. That's something that needs to be changed. There needs to be a move towards direct accountability and direct relationships with the voter, the electorate, and the citizens immediately to end this trail of tears.
Joshua Joseph: They need to increase the prices. It's poor people's fault, you know what I mean? Keep increasing it. It's their fault. It's their original sin. I mean, they're not doing right. They're not. They say they work two or three jobs. Is that true? Can we verify that? Blank faces. Bring the prices up, this is poor people's fault.
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Stephanie Briggs, Senior Manager of Revenue and Regulatory Affairs for Rhode Island Energy: We are extremely sensitive to any increases in rates and we continue to offer many programs to customers who are having difficulty paying their bills. We will get to those in a bit, but first, let me outline the six filings. I'm going to start with electricity.
The first filing is the company's proposed 2023 renewable energy growth factors. The factors are designed to fund the renewable energy growth program, which includes compensation for renewable energy systems and recovery of administrative expenses as prescribed by Rhode Island state law. The renewable energy growth program facilitates and promotes the installation of grid-connected generation of renewable energy and diversifies the energy generation sources within the load zone of the electric distribution company. In turn, the program helps reduce carbon emissions and stimulate economic development.
If approved, customers would see an increase in their bills. Our residential last resort service customer who uses 500 kilowatt hours a month would see an increase of $2.54 on their monthly bill, which amounts to a 1.9% increase. The new rate would become effective October 1st, 2023.
The second filing is the company's annual reconciliation of its electric infrastructure, safety, and reliability plan for fiscal year 2023. The electric infrastructure safety and reliability plan is designed to enhance the safety and reliability of the electric distribution system. The plan is comprised of capital investments, operation, and maintenance expenses for fiscal year 2023, which ran from April 1st, 2022 through March 31st, 2023. The company invested a total of $108.4 million in capital investment as compared to the approved budget of $104.7 million. The company's vegetation management and other operation and maintenance spending totaled $13.7 million as compared to the budget of $13.1 million.
The company's plant and service investments totaled $94.8 million, which is approximately $10 million below the forecasted amount. Regarding bill impacts, a residential last resort service customer using 500 kilowatt hours a month would see a decrease of 23 cents on their monthly bill, which amounts to a 0.2% decrease. These rates would also become effective on October 1, 2023.
The third filing is the company's proposed pension adjustment factor and post-retirement benefits other than pensions or PBOP factor. The company reconciles its actual pension and PBOP expenses against its associated allowance and base distribution rates as determined in the most recent distribution rate case. Any difference between the pension and PBOP expenses and the associated allowance, either positive or negative, is reflected in rates assessed to the company's electric customers through the pension adjustment factor.
The bill impact of the proposed pension adjustment factor on a typical residential customer receiving last resort service and using 500 kilowatt hours a month is a decrease of $1.23 or approximately 0.9%. The new rates would be effective October 1, 2023.
The fourth filing is the company's proposed last resort service winter rates. These are rates applied to customers who rely on the company to secure their electricity supply and only apply to the supply portion of the bill. Currently, about 75% of residential customers are last resort service customers. As a reminder, last resort service customers are those who do not have a competitive supplier and are not enrolled in a municipal or community aggregation plan. Municipalities that currently offer an aggregation plan are Narragansett, Newport, Portsmouth, South Kingstown, Providence, Barrington, and Central Falls. If approved, last resort service customers will see an increase in their bill for supply rates. A residential last resort service customer who uses 500 kilowatt hours a month would see an increase of $32.29 on their monthly bill, which amounts to a 24% increase.
This increase also factors in the reduction of the monthly customer charge from $12 to $6 a month. As a reminder, last resort service rates are adjusted twice a year for residential and small and medium business customers and are determined by competitive solicitations. Traditionally, supply rates go up for the winter and down for the summer. Rhode Island Energy passes these costs onto the customer without a markup or profit, the new rates would become effective. October 1, 2023.
The proposed rates stemming from the four electric filings I mentioned would all be effective October 1, 2023.
When looking at the cumulative electric monthly bill impact of all of the filings, a residential last resort service customer who uses 500-kilowatt hours a month would see an increase of $33.38 on their monthly bill, which amounts to a 24.9% increase and a customer on the low-income rate, receiving a 25% discount would see an increase of $25.03 on their monthly bill.
These increases factor in the reduction of the monthly customer charge from $12 to $6 effective October 1, 2023. They do not factor in the suspension of the gross earnings tax, which will be applicable from December 2023 through March 2024.
With regards to gas prices, the company, on August 1, 2023, submitted its annual distribution adjustment charge or DAC filing as well as the supplemental filing on September 1, 2023. The company also filed its annual gas cost recovery filing on September 1, 2023. In the same docket, the company noted that certain calculations would need to be updated due to an issue with the gas demand forecast data used to calculate gas rates. That update has been completed and the update to these filings will be submitted to the commission this week. The bill impacts that I am presenting represent the results of those updated calculations for an average residential heating customer utilizing 845 therms annually.
The impact of the proposed residential DAC factor in the supplemental filing results in a decrease of $34.38 or 2%. The new rates would become effective November 1, 2023. The company's GCR filing reflects cost recovery for one, firm sales service to customers in the residential non-heating and heating rate classes and firm sales customers in the small, medium, large, and extra large commercial and industrial rate classes, and two, transportation services provided to gas marketers in the associated gas marketer fixed charges and factors for an average residential heating customer utilizing 845 terms annually.
The impact of the proposed residential GCR factor results in an annual decrease of $26.86 or 1.5%. Again, these rates would be effective November 1, 2023. The proposed rates stemming from these two gas filings would become effective November 1, 2023. In total, if approved, residential heating gas customers who used 845 therms annually, would see a total decrease of $61.24 in their annual bill.
This reduction also does not factor in the suspension of the gross earnings tax. We are extremely sensitive to any increases and we continue to offer many programs to customers who are having difficulties paying their bills. We are currently offering additional options to assist customers with managing their bills, including such programs as:
budget billing - a COVID-19 payment agreement. This allows customers to avoid the risk of disconnection by paying any overdue balance over time;
the residential low-income discount rate classes for eligible residential customers offer a 25% or 30% discount off a residential customer's total bill;
the arrearage management program offers eligible low-income customers arrearage forgiveness up to $1,500 annually; and,
energy efficiency programs to find ways to reduce their energy use, thereby lowering their energy bills.
The company is grateful to potentially receive support through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (REGI) consistent with the proposed 2023-A REGI plan, which may be found on the website of the Office of Energy Resources if approved. The REGI Funds which are administered by the Office of Energy Resources, will provide relief to low-income customers on the A-60 rate class totaling $3 million.
The company is also grateful that customers will receive relief from the gross earnings tax this winter. Last legislative session, the General Assembly, in coordination with Governor McKee, passed a law that will suspend the gross earnings tax for four months, from December 2023 through March 2024. During that four-month time, which aligns with the final four months of the winter LRS rates season, customers will not be responsible for paying GET. We don't take any proposed bill increase for our customers lightly. We remain focused on balancing affordability for our customers while ensuring the safety and compliance of our electric and gas systems.
Dear Public Utilities Commission:
I am writing to express my deep concern and opposition to Rhode Island Energy’s proposed rate hikes for electricity services. If approved by this Commission, whose purpose is to look out for the interest of the general public, then, starting in October a residential customer’s monthly electricity bill will increase by 24% which is estimated to be an additional $32.
Almost every Fall, people all across Rhode Island are forced to stress about the same issue – the increasing costs of their electricity services. And since taking ownership of our utility system, RI Energy has proposed egregious, record-setting rate hikes which have hurt thousands of Rhode Islanders who have now fallen behind on their utility bills and are now experiencing debt (some have even been on the verge of having their services cut).
With RI Energy’s growing revenues being worth billions of dollars, it is absurd for RI Energy to pretend these rate hikes are inevitable as it has become relatively clear that the company values its shareholders and profits more than its actual customers who DEPEND on utility services. Because despite RI Energy President, Dave Bonenberger, claiming back in June: “we’ll [RI Energy] continue to work with state leaders on other ways to help the most vulnerable” – that has not happened.
I respectfully ask that the PUC vote against Rhode Island Energy’s proposal to increase electricity rates for the Fall, especially when you consider that this year there are significantly fewer resources and utility relief programs available for people to access.
Representative David Morales