Benny Grayson, a Woonsocket resident who works with the George Wiley Center, a group that advocates for low-income communities in the state, said after a hot summer, families living in poverty are already behind on their electricity bills.
“Accepting this rate increase could be devastating,” Grayson said.
Rhode Island Energy, which provides electric service to more than 770,000 customers across the state, filed drop rates with state regulators in late July. The proposed new rate for residential customers, which would take effect Oct. 1 and last until March 31, 2023, is nearly 18 cents per kilowatt hour, down from about 11 cents per kilowatt hour in fall 2021.
Dr. Nithin J. Paul, a family physician in Woonsocket, told of one of his patients who earns less than $900 a month. He said her rent had gone up this year and she was struggling to afford the necessary medication that would prevent her from having another stroke.
“You make him choose between getting a shot or paying for the electricity this year,” he said.
Ruth “Diamond” Madsen said she had been homeless for a decade, but now has a fixed income in an apartment and deals with medical bills related to spinal arthritis. If the rate increases are approved, “I’m going to be homeless again,” said Madsen, who is now a community organizer with various nonprofits that help the homeless.
State Rep. Kendra Anderson, a Democrat representing Warwick and Cranston, said she received dozens of phone calls and emails from voters “frightened” by these rate increases. She said many families, including those in her district, will be forced to choose between paying their medicine, food, rent or electricity bills this winter.
“It’s a ripple effect. When is it going to stop? Anderson said. “I know it’s a legal procedure. I’m used to that. But we have to look at human beings who are suffering.
Dave Bonenberger, president of Rhode Island Energy, previously said inflation, rising natural gas prices and a local supply shortage exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine all contributed to the rate hikes. .
Governor Dan J. McKee, however, said more than 50% of power purchases took place before Russia invaded Ukraine. He said recovery from the pandemic — for homes and small businesses — will be stalled by rate increases. “We need to understand what happened before Ukraine and not use that as the only reason we are here today,” he told the committee.
In August, McKee offered to use $3.8 million from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to help low-income residents. But that would only help 39,000 low-income customers save between $14 and $17 a month each, which wouldn’t cover the difference between summer and winter rates.
The higher prices will result in significantly higher bills for residential customers. According to the energy company, residents using an average of 500 kilowatt hours per month will see their monthly bills increase by about $52. Business customers will experience bill increases ranging from approximately 41% to 51%.
Before public comment began Friday morning, PUC Chairman Ronald T. Gerwatowski said the rate increases “reflect the highest rates I’ve seen in my career.” The Public Utilities Commission, which has the final say on whether or not the rate increase takes effect this fall, is expected to approve them. Gerwatowski said the commission cannot legally ask the company to absorb any portion of the cost increase or reverse rate increases unless there is evidence that Rhode Island Energy did not. did not follow the acquisition plan.
But state Rep. David Morales, a Democrat representing Providence, said the commission should determine this case is “extraordinary” and reject the rate increases. Morales called on Rhode Island Energy to “absorb some of the costs” because “the ultimate goal was for Rhode Island Energy to commit to our state.”
Rhode Island Energy is owned by Pennsylvania-based PPL Corporation, which recently acquired The Narragansett Electric Company from National Grid USA following a settlement agreement between PPL Corp. and the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office in May. As part of the deal, PPL agreed not to seek a base rate increase for “at least three years” after the deal closes.
Rhode Island Energy provides electricity to customers, but it does not own the power plants where the electricity is generated. The electricity rate from a supplier chosen by Rhode Island Energy is called service of last resort, or LRS. The LRS rate is billed to customers at cost, with no profit to Rhode Island Energy. The company makes its profit from a separate delivery fee, not a supply fee like the LRS.
Stephanie Briggs, director of revenue requirements at Rhode Island Energy, said the company is “extremely sensitive to the difficulties” of rate increases. She said the company was offering relief, such as its budget plan program, and discounts to some low-income households.
But Morales said those available relief programs are “not adequate enough” and are not reaching the majority of Rhode Island families.
“[Rhode Island Energy] will be responsible for recording a record number of utility cuts this winter,” Morales said. “The root of the problem is tackling the corporate greed of a profit-seeking utility company.”