New Haveners concerned about a proposed rate increase said that they want United Illuminating to have the infrastructure to withstand superstorms, but that they’ve already paid for it.
The electric company is asking the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) to grant a more than $100 million distribution rate increase over a three year period. The increase would generate $65.6 million next year, $27.1 million the following year and another $13.4 million in 2019.
That would raise individual customer bills by an average of about $30 a month over that three-year period, according to the Office of Consumer Counsel.
The counsel’s office opposes the rate increase. It also came out for reducing by almost $10, to $7.63, a residential fixed charge that UI levies.
UI said it needs the increase to replace poles and wires and make other investments to avoid power outages during major storms.
More than 35 residents from New Haven and other parts of the state attended a PURA hearing Monday in the Hall of Records at 200 Orange St. to oppose the rate increase. They said some people already can’t afford their bills. And they argued that the rate increase de-incentivizes energy-efficiency efforts.
Several people also argued that UI is primarily seeking to line the pockets of its new parent company, Spain-based Iberdrola.
Frank Panzarella said that stats already showed during the last rate increase request that Connecticut residents are having trouble paying their bills. He asked what made UI think that customers can afford to pay more.
“I don’t think that situation has improved,” he said. “I haven’t seen the current statistics, but I would bet that it’s even higher than it was then.”
He also called UI hypocritical about increases. On the one hand, he said, the company panned the push for solar power because the company claimed it would hurt low-income people. But when customers attempted to be more energy efficient and reduce their bills, the company went back to the state to ask for a rate increase to make up for lost revenue.
“If they’re so concerned about low income people, why are they now slamming them with all of these increases?” he asked. “I don’t think they are. They’re punishing people who are doing what the state wants people to do—conserve energy.”
David Desiderato of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment argued that individual customers who invest their money in trying to do the right thing and conserve energy by reducing their consumption get hit with an unwelcome reality — their usage goes down, but their bill stays up, because of a fixed charge in their bills. When customers see no real change in their bills, they’re less likely to make the investments in efficiency, he said.
“We’re not saying UI shouldn’t recover the just and reasonable costs that they incur on our behalf to supply services,” Desiderato said. “We’re saying that those costs should be recovered in different ways, in ways that encourage customers to the greatest extent possible to use energy efficiently and to invest in greater efficiency.”
“Reducing or eliminating the fixed charge advances state policy, encourages conservation, is supported by nearly every one including administrative and legislative decision makers, and does not have a negative financial consequences for the utility,” he said. “By not taking this action [of reducing or eliminating the fixed rate] opens the door to even higher charges.”
“Is the sky the limit, once we go down this path? Other states around us haven’t gone down this path,” he added. “We have by far the highest rates around, anywhere. And it’s not just residential customers. Look at the rates that business customers pay; they are similarly high.”
Environmentalist Lynne Bonnett said she wants the lower rates that New York and Massachusetts have.
“Given the historical high rates we’ve been paying in Connecticut, why [do we] need to pay more to meet our needs than our neighbors?” she asked. “Is Connecticut mismanaging our assets?”
She argued that rate increase disproportionately hurts the urban poor. Even though UI has a community benefit program, many people don’t qualify for the benefits because they don’t own their home, and if they do, they’re often waitlisted, Bonnett said.
Angela Hatley said she simply can’t afford another increase, especially when she has invested in making her home more energy efficient and not seen any benefit to her bill. She also dismissed infrastructure improvements that don’t involve putting electrical infrastructure underground, where it would be protected from the elements.
“They’re basically gouging us,” she said. “I don’t see how we should be paying a company that’s been in business for a long time and knows this is what you need to do to keep your electricity flowing. It shouldn’t be an expenditure that you continually come back to ask me to invest in. I read here that this is an investment. Doesn’t an investment mean a return on the money? An investment doesn’t mean put money out there and I have to pay for it. It means that you will get your money eventually.
“I don’t want them to get another cent,” she said.
Newhallville resident Ken Joyner argued that the company gets plenty of money but not only neglects his neighborhood, but also doesn’t have a great track record in New Haven when it comes to outreach.
He said any rate increase would be license for the company to continue to destroy trees outside of Newhallville.
“They don’t even come down to do regular maintenance and repair,” he said. “They don’t trim, they don’t come out and put new poles in because they’re leaning, or fix wires that are dipping in the street.
The Company’s Side
To Joyner’s point, one of the reasons that UI is asking for the rate increase is for tree trimming around power lines as well aso replacement of older substations and new poles and wires, according to UI Vice President for Communications Michael West.
West said that rates have been flat for about three years. In that time maintenance has been ongoing. But it requires money to bring needed improvements and guard against climate change problems such as superstorms that cause severe power outages. He said the company is trying to balance what it’s hearing from customers through its own surveys of customers, but also what is heard in public forums like the one held Monday.
“We do know about 51 percent of our customers have said through surveys that we’ve done a few months back that they’re not willing to pay less for more outages,” he said. “We really posed the question to say that if we decided to not have higher rates to fulfill what we thinks is necessary, would you be willing to accept more outages? Because that’s usually always the impact. So, there is a choice to be made.”
Though UI got slammed at the hearing, he said the process is a good one.
“I don’t know many services where you actually get a say in what the changes of the rate should be,” he said. “There are many other services where you don’t have a say. It’s democracy at work.”