Having validated the procurement costs for electricity, the Public Utilities Commission on Friday approved Rhode Island Energy’s request to increase the price per kilowatt hour for the basic service from 7.810 cents to 17.7 cents, during a tumultuous hearing where shouting protestors including a state representative were escorted from the room by police. The increase takes affect Oct. 1. Rhode Island Energy has also applied for approval of increase in natural gas costs starting Nov. 1.
Between shouts for an impact report, accusations of social murder, and pleas to consider how the increase will impact low income families — with claims if action isn’t taken, children would die — the protestors chanted “drop it off the docket.”
What most didn’t hear, as the room cleared, are the credits that will be applied to both electric and gas bills that according to a PUC release will actually result in a $5.37 monthly savings over last winter in the average bill for a qualified low income customer using 500 kWh per month. That credit, made possible by $3.8 million allocation in regional greenhouse gas initiative funds by Gov. Dan McKee, will be applied during the winter period. A more overarching one-time $64 credit will be applied most likely to the November bills of about 500,000 residential and commercial electric customers. The credits will be funded from the $50 million that Attorney General Peter Neronha secured in the PPL settlement for the Pennsylvania company to acquire National Grid’s Ocean State operations for $4 billion this May. PPL has subsequently named its Ocean State operations Rhode Island Energy.
In an additional measure to lesson the historic increase in rates, the commission voted to defer the monthly customer charge on all customers. This amounts to $6 savings with the exception of those on the low income rate who would get $4.50 deferred.
According to a release from the agency, a typical residential customer with the same usage will see a monthly increase of about $20 compared to last winter, as opposed to a $36 increase.
While the credits offer relief in the winter rate period (rates traditionally drop during the summer), Public Utilities Commission Chairman Ron Gerwatowski voiced concern that given the volatility of the market, effects of inflation and the war in Ukraine that the utility could be looking for similar rate increases next year. He also pointed out that Massachusetts regulators approved a 33.7 cent per kilowatt hour rate for National Grid, meaning the electric rate in the neighboring state is nearly twice that of Rhode Island. He attributed the higher rate to that state’s system of annual, rather than semi-annual rate reviews like Rhode Island’s, that require utilities to project energy costs over an extended period.
Protestors gathered on the steps of the PUC offices on Jefferson Boulevard with members of the clergy and others decrying the rate increases and calling on the commission to deny Rhode Island Energy’s rate increase request, before a phalanx of television cameras. As reporters and camera crews moved to the hearing room, where the meeting started as advertised at 11 a.m., protestors followed. Gerwatowski explained the purpose of the meeting was to take a vote on the proposed rate increase and not to consider new or additional testimony. The commission heard testimony during two days of hearings last week. After a vote that the procurement of electricity (agreements Rhode Island Energy has made with providers) meet their satisfaction, the commission moved on to the rate.
It didn’t get far before the shouts and harangues of protestors drowned out Gerwatowski’s efforts to proceed. He called for a recess and left the room, leaving Commissioners John C. Revens and Abigail Anthony to face the crowd.
“We have the freedom of speech. We’re not a bill. We are people,” one man yelled in the face of a police officer who sought to quiet the group. The officer attempted to reason but those around the man joined in a chorus of complaints. The officer finally turned away.
Providence state Rep. David Morales, waving his arms, pointed accusingly at Revens saying, “this is not funny.” He said Revens was smiling, which Revens later refuted. “You should be ashamed,” Morales yelled before turning his back and walking away.
In one of the less confrontational moments, a woman who identified herself as Sister of Mercy Tina, said she heard that PPL promised it would not raise rates “time and time again” during hearings on the acquisition from National Grid six months ago.
Revens sought to restore order saying that many in the room attended the public hearings and have the right to criticize the law. Morales interrupted saying Revens dismissed testimony from the public and the “only thing that seemed to matter here is the big wigs and the lawyers.”
Morales defended his outbursts saying he represents the interests of his constituents even if it means “going up against corporate interests … that’s what I do as an elected official.” He said Revens, as an appointee of former Gov. Gina Raimondo, “doesn’t have the same level of accountability.”
“You know better than that,” retorted Revens, pointing out that he served for five decades in the General Assembly, “just as you are now.” He went on to say many of the issues Morales referred to, such as a percentage income payment plan, didn’t pass in the General Assembly. Morales said Rhode Island Energy lobbied against it.
Revens tried to get a word in edgewise, finally folding his arms and saying no more.
On returning, Gerwatowski sought to reconvene the hearing asking the audience to remain silent and that the meeting “is not participatory.” He said that those being disruptive “would be escorted from the room.” Two Warwick Police officers stepped forward. That did not stop the crowd and calls for the commission to cut PPL profits from 10 to 6 percent, or chants of “drop it off the docket.”
By the time the commission reached the issue of credits and how they could affect the bills of Rhode Island Energy customers, most of the room was cleared.
PUC offices are likely to witness a similar faceoff next month as it considers Rhode Island Energy’s proposal to increase natural gas rates Nov. 1. If approved, the PUC has calculated the annual typical residential heating customer using 845 therms would see an increase of $227.23 or 15 percent on their current annual bill of $1,514.68.
Those hearings haven’t been scheduled, but are expected to be held in mid-October.