WARWICK — Just weeks before Rhode Island homes and businesses are expected to face a nearly 50 percent increase in their monthly electric bills, concerned residents, activists, and elected officials voiced their outrage over rate hike during a public hearing Friday in front of the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
Dozens packed a hearing room at the PUC’s office in Warwick. Some held bright yellow signs that read: “systemic poverty is immoral.” Attendees claimed the rate increases will lead to widespread utility shutoffs and a higher unhoused population this winter.
“This sledgehammer approach lacks creativity, but most importantly lacks empathy,” said the Reverend Dr. Donnie Anderson. “Make no mistake, these rates will cause an increase in homelessness.”
Benny Grayson, a resident of Woonsocket who works with the George Wiley Center, a group that advocates for the state’s low-income communities, said after a hot summer, families living in poverty are already behind on their electric bills.
“To take on this rate increase could be devastating,” said Grayson.
Rhode Island Energy, which provides electricity services to more than 770,000 customers across the state, filed fall rates with state regulators in late July. The newly proposed rate for residential customers, which would go into effect on Oct. 1 and last through March 31, 2023, is nearly 18 cents per kilowatt hour, up from about 11 cent per kilowatt hour in fall 2021.
Dr. Nithin J. Paul, a family medicine doctor in Woonsocket, spoke of a patient of his who earns less than $900 monthly. He said her rent increased this year and she’s struggling to afford necessary medication that would prevent her from having another stroke.
“You’re making her choose between getting a stoke or paying electricity this year,” he said.
Ruth “Diamond” Madsen said she experienced homelessness for a decade but is now on a fixed income in an apartment and dealing 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 unhoused.
State Representative Kendra Anderson, a Democrat representing Warwick and Cranston, said she’s received dozens of phone calls and emails from constituents who are “frightened” by these rate increases. She said many families, including those in her district, will be forced to choose between paying for their medications, food, rent, or their electric bills this winter.
“It’s a ripple effect. When will it stop?” said Anderson. “I know this is a legal process. I’m use to that. But we have to look at the human beings that are suffering.”
Dave Bonenberger, president of Rhode Island Energy, previously said inflation, the rise in natural-gas prices, and the local supply shortage made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have all contributed to the rate hikes.
Governor Dan J. McKee, however, said more than 50 percent of the electricity procurement occurred before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He said recovery from the pandemic — for both homes and small businesses — will be stalled by the rate increases. “We should understand what happened prior to Ukraine and not use it as the only reason we are here today,” he said in front of the commission.
In August, McKee proposed using $3.8 million dollars from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to help low-income residents. But that would help just 39,000 low-income customers save between $14 and $17 per month each, which would not cover the difference between the summer and winter rates.
The price hike 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. Commercial customers will experience bill hikes that will range from about 41 percent to 51 percent.
Before public comments 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 While tThe commission has final say over whether the increased rates will be put into effect this fall, it is expected to approve them. Gerwatowski said the commission cannot legally ask the company to absorb some of the increased costs or strike down rate increases unless there is evidence that Rhode Island Energy did not comply with the acquisition plan.
But State Representative David Morales, a Democrat representing Providence, said the commission should determine that this case is “extraordinary” and reject the rate increases. Morales called on Rhode Island Energy to “absorb some of the cost” because “the ultimate goal was for Rhode Island Energy to be committing 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 agreement, PPL agreed not to, will not seek any base rate increases for “at least three years” after the transaction closed.
Rhode Island Energy delivers electricity to customers, but it does not own the power plants where electricity is generated. The rate for electricity from a supplier chosen by Rhode Island Energy is called Last Resort Service, or LRS. The LRS rate is charged to customers at cost, with no profit to Rhode Island Energy. The company makes its profit from a separate delivery charge, not from supply charges like the LRS.
Stephanie Briggs, the director of revenue requirements at Rhode Island Energy, said the company is “extremely sensitive to the hardships” of the rate increases. She said the company is offering relief, such as their budget plan program and some discounts to certain low-income households.
On Thursday, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha filed a memo arguing that the PUC Commission should consider all available options.
“There is still more that the PUC can and should do, including giving ratepayers the option to defer payment of some of the increased supply cost until next year and re-allocating certain existing state funds to provide some relief,” said Neronha in a statement Friday.
But Morales said these available relief programs are “not adequate enough” and do not reach the majority of families in Rhode Island.
“[Rhode Island Energy] will be responsible for recording a record-number of utility shutoffs this winter,” Morales said. “The root of the issue is addressing the corporate greed of a profit-seeking public utilities company.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.