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Friday, August 25, 2017

Another reason to “Solarize Charlestown”

By Steve Ahlquist in Rhode Island’s Future

EDITOR’S NOTE: Charlestown residents have until September 8 to sign up for “Solarize Charlestown,” a group purchase of residential solar energy panels available through the town at a discount. This may also be the last year that you can also get a significant tax credit on your federal taxes for investing in green energy for your home. Contact Charlestown’s contractor, SOL Power, at 401-680-0765. Stick it back to National Grid by not only using less electricity, but also selling energy back to National Grid when you generate more than you can use.

After five hours consisting of public comment, a long presentation from National Grid lawyers and witnesses, more witnesses from the PUC and finally a presentation from Lt. Governor Daniel McKee stressing the importance of alternative electricity providers, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved National Grid’s requested 53 percent electricity rate increase.

“What we heard today clearly is that the energy burden that is experienced by many in Rhode Island tears at the social  fabric of our state,” said Abigail Anthony, on her first day as a commissioner on the PUC. “And the tools that we have to manage the rate increases proposed in this filing – energy efficiency, switching to a competitive supplier – we must acknowledge that those are not enough to help the most vulnerable customers.

“But- the decision that is before the Commission today is much more specific…”

And so did the new commissioner, recently appointed by Governor Gina Raimondo and highly regarded as a renewable-energy advocate, find herself in complete agreement with commissioners Marion Gold and Margaret Curran in authorizing an electric rate increase, from around 6 cents per kilowatt hour to just over 9 cents.

The other options available to the PUC, laid out by Commission Chair Curran, were to deny the increase or to spread the increase out over a longer period of time. Both were rejected by the PUC.

“I think that both of those options are bad,” said Curran. “I think they would be very deleterious to ratepayers were we to do either.

 “First, if we were to reject the rate increase, National Grid could go to court and under the law that’s in place National Grid is entitled to recover their costs of the energy that they provide to their customers. So it would just mean that something would be tied up in court for who knows how long. National Grid would surely prevail and ratepayers would then have whatever the current rates were plus all of the rates  that were not put in place, all lumped together in the bill. That would be a much worse hardship.”

As for spreading out the increase over a longer period of time, “We did in fact do that in 2014,” said Curran. “And that worked out well at that time, relying on the forecasts that were available… Going forward it [then] appeared that prices were going to be at least stable, if not perhaps lower. And we were lucky. We turned out to be correct on that.

“I think we’ve heard a lot of evidence today that prices are likely to go up. They are not likely to remain stable for the next year or two or to fall. And so, putting off this request, I don’t think would be of benefit to the ratepayers because the favorable conditions that made that work out previously are simply not present at this time.”

Governor Raimondo wasn’t officially happy with the PUC’s decision. In a statement she wrote that, “Hard-working, middle class Rhode Island families need relief. I am disappointed that Rhode Islanders’ electricity bills will be going up this winter. I call on regulators, Grid and consumer advocates to work together to ensure that Rhode Island families have access to clean, reliable and affordable electricity… This rate increase will create uncertainty for many Rhode Island families and seniors who live on fixed incomes. In the months ahead, I will direct our regulators to complete a comprehensive review of the utility companies’ rates and ensure that Rhode Island consumers are paying a fair rate and not a penny more.”

Raimondo’s call for a “comprehensive review” of National Grid is a bit of political theater. National Grid has already filed with the PUC for a full rate case in November. National Grid will be seeking changes in the rate structure, essentially asking for substantial changes in the way they get paid. 

Lawyers and stakeholders from across the political spectrum and representing a variety of interests will be heavily involved in the process, hoping to shape what PUC Commissioner Marion Gold called the “energy system of the future.”

In fact, at the PUC hearing Curran suggested that the hours of public commentary that concerned itself with the social costs of high energy prices and concerns about climate change might be more relevant to November’s rate case. She encouraged those in attendance to bring their concerns to that hearing.

“I want to compliment all of the people who gave public comment,” said Curran. “I think that it was a very impressive presentation from all of the people who spoke. There were reasoned and very well though out comments and I think that I speak for my fellow commissioners that it was very moving in many respects.”

“The stories are really compelling and we are listening really, really hard,” said Gold. “I think it affected all of us. I think we don’t pay attention to the every day Rhode Islanders and the impacts energy rates have on their businesses and homes at our peril and we’re really committed to doing everything we can both within the state and regionally…”

Though Curran may have been moved by the testimony and Gold found the testimony compelling, neither were moved or compelled any more than Anthony to help Rhode Island resident Pauline Belal

In June she had her electricity and gas turned off. Belal said that National Grid refused to recognize her medical protection order, which would have prevented a shut off. Over the course of less than one year Belal had three surgeries and her husband suffered a heart attack, causing a financial disaster for her family.

Addressing National Grid’s lawyers directly, Belal said, “Your millions of dollars in profit is a difference of my $20 a month. You’re asking for $20. I’m asking you to take the $20 and eat it. Just put it down, wait another six months, wait another year, so the people in the State of Rhode Island, the average person in Rhode Island, can get on their feet…

“I am your average citizen,” said Belal to the PUC. “I am asking that you please deny this increase. You will literally put me on the street.”

After the PUC made their decision for National grid and against people like Pauline Belal, a woman in the audience said, “For shame!”

Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member. and Twitter: @SteveAhlquist.