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McKee proposes $3.8m to help most at risk afford expected electricity rate increases this winter

The proposal would use the state’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative funds, which could help defray — but not entirely offset — a rate increase for as many as 39,000 low-income electricity customers

Utility lines in New England.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

PAWTUCKET — Governor Dan J. McKee announced a proposal Wednesday to provide $3.8 million for low-income residents who are most at risk of not being able to afford their electricity bills this winter.

These dollars, from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative fund, are expected to help approximately 39,000 low-income customers with Rhode Island Energy billing accounts this winter, according to the governor’s office.

McKee credited Christopher Kearns, interim commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources, with the proposal. Robert Beadle, a spokesman for the office, told the Globe that families will save between $14 and $17 per month if this proposal is approved. But that cost savings is not expected to cover the difference between the summer and winter rates.

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In late July, Rhode Island Energy, which provides electricity services to more than 780,000 customers across the state, filed fall rates with state regulators that would increase by 47 percent as of Oct. 1. The company, which is the state’s primary utility, said it would need to sharply increase rates due to an unprecedented surge in energy costs this winter season. These winter rates would last through March 31, 2023.

McKee filed a public comment to the Public Utilities Commission on Aug. 1, urging specific action to provide relief to Rhode Islanders. “An increase of this magnitude has a potentially devastating impact on residential ratepayers, particularly our most vulnerable populations, including low-income, the elderly and seriously ill individuals,” McKee wrote.

The commission has final say over whether the increased rates will be put into effect this fall. It is expected to approve these rates.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is the nation’s first mandatory, market-based cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Rhode Island receives carbon dioxide allowance proceeds, which are invested in programs such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, direct energy bill assistance and other greenhouse gas reduction programs, according to the governor’s office.

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On Wednesday at the Blackstone Valley Community Action Program Community Center in Pawtucket, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos said Rhode Island’s “low- and fixed-income communities, especially our seniors, deserve affordable energy.”

“Our families cannot handle this up and down [in prices],” said Matos. “We cannot rely on natural gas, which has caused the spike. We have to turn to green energy.”

Customers who are not already in a low-income discounted rate program can apply online. Residents who do not qualify for the low-income rate have other options for managing the rate increase including applying for more time to pay, budget planning, grants, debt forgiveness, and shut-off projections.

Residents who are looking for other ways to save on energy can also schedule a free home assessment through the state’s energy efficiency programs.

Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee addresses the media.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The news comes as inflation is still at all-time highs, and where customers of all income levels are feeling it at the grocery store and the gas station. When asked what McKee planned to do to provide relief for the middle class, he pointed to other programs not specific to the cost of electricity, such as the child tax rebate program the General Assembly passed, the now phased out car tax, and how veterans are no longer paying taxes on their pensions.

McKee said his administration and the General Assembly have provided “tens of millions of dollars of tax relief.”

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“Rhode Island is responding in a very strong way,” said McKee.

In his letter from early August, previously obtained by Globe Rhode Island, the governor asked the state’s Public Utilities Commission to moderate the impact on ratepayers by spreading the higher rates over a 12-month period, considering deferring a fixed amount on the delivery side of the electric bill, and suspending the customer charge on residential electric bills until next summer when “electricity prices are projected to decline significantly.”

A 30-day public comment period on the administration’s drafted Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative allocation plan began Wednesday. The Office of Energy Resources will host two public hearings on the plan on Sept. 6 and Sept. 8. Written comments can be submitted.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha filed a motion on July 21 on the proposed rate increases. Neronha’s office told the Globe previously that the environmental and energy unit within the attorney general’s office is “prepared to scrutinize every aspect” of this rate increase request.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.