Winter electric rate hikes approved despite protest

Updated at 4:29 p.m.

THE R.I. PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION on Friday approved new winter electric rates despite concern over how higher bills will impact low-income residents. /AP PHOTO/JOHN ANTCZAK

WARWICK – Historic electric rate hikes will prevail despite controversy, with state regulators approving the proposed rate increases Friday.

The R.I. Public Utilities Commission’s 3-0 vote allows Rhode Island Energy to charge higher winter electric rates starting Oct. 1

The rate hikes drew concern from community advocates who warned of mass utility shutoffs and homelessness, with a small group of protestors temporarily stopping discussion for a brief period during the meeting on Friday. Gov. Daniel J. McKee, lawmakers and the R.I. Office of the Attorney General had also asked regulators to find ways to offset the financial burden of rising electricity bills for struggling residents.

Ultimately, the commission found no proof of negligence or imprudence in Rhode Island Energy’s plan to buy electricity from suppliers and resell to local customers, which would be the only way under state law that regulators could reject the rate hikes.

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“We did the best we could here,” Commission Chairman Ronald Gerwatowski said.

Rhode island Energy has framed the rate increases as symptom of uncontrollable market conditions, with prices going up because of rising demand for natural gas coupled with inflation and unrest in Eastern Europe. Gerwatowski on Friday warned that this volatility and the price hikes it creates, will likely continue and may even get worse next winter.

Although regulators approved the rate hikes, the proposed bill impacts – originally calculated to go up $50 per month based on the average residential customers use – may not be as severe as anticipated. The commission under a series of separate votes approved bill credits from several funding sources that will lessen the blow, particularly for low-income residents.

These measures include a $60, one-time credit on gas and electric charges for ratepayers, to be distributed on Nov. 1, using $32.5 million from the state’s settlement with PPL Corp, Rhode Island Energy’s parent company.

Low-income ratepayers will also get another $105 in rate relief, spread out over December and January, using $3.8 million from the state’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, as proposed by McKee.

Taken together, these measures are expected to shave off at least $15, or 30%, from the expected $50 monthly increase in winter electric bills, with more relief for low-income ratepayers, Commissioner Abigail Anthony said during the meeting.

The commission also authorized a six-month suspension of the $6 monthly charge for residential customers, separate from the amount billed for usage, as recommended by McKee.

McKee in a statement on Friday said he was “pleased” that state regulators adopted his recommendations to suspend customer charges and use other funds, such as the gas cap-and-trade-revenue, to reduce charges for low-income residents.

McKee said he is still looking at other ways to help ratepayers cover the increased gas and electricity bills coming this winter, including more federal funding through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. He also plans to introduce legislation next year to suspend the state’s 4% tax on electricity bills through April.

The new electric rates take effect Oct. 1.

A separate proposal for winter gas rates will be considered at a later date.

(ADDS paragraphs 12-13 with McKee comment.)

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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