Eversource customers criticize proposed rate hike

By RICHIE DAVIS, Recorder Staff
Wednesday, April 26, 2017

“Excessive” and “usurious” were among words some Eversource customers called a proposed $300 million rate increase at the last of 10 public hearings.
More than 125 people attended the state Department of Utilities hearing in the Greenfield Middle School auditorium Wednesday night. The electric utility’s requested 10-percent residential rate increase would add $11.64 per month to the average 550-kilowatt hour bill for western customers as of Jan. 1, and provide the utility’s shareholders with a 10.5 percent guaranteed rate of return.
Of the more than a dozen people who testified during the hearing’s first two hours, the only testimony in favor of the proposed hike was from Craig Hallstrom, the Eversource regional president of electrical operations.
Hallstrom said that contrary to what most critics charge, a change in rate design affecting solar net metering customers was not intended to remove incentives, but rather to make sure those with solar panels “pay their fair share” for the grid.
But David Keith Gilbert, who chairs Deerfield’s Energy Resources Committee, was among those who told the six DPU representatives he was most upset about Eversource’s proposed peak “demand charge” for solar customers, based on how much electricity they use in their highest 15-minute period in the month.

“These would unravel much of the work we have been doing to promote alternative energy,” he said. “Such fees are precisely the wrong response to the increasing success of non-carbon sources of energy. … Market manipulation to prop up the fossil sector is shortsighted and self-destructive. If you must absolutely raise rates and add fees, rather than further rewarding stockholders, all revenue from such increases should instead be set aside to help pay for increasing damage from climate disruption.”
Conway Selectboard member Robert Armstrong described the utility’s “heroic” response in the aftermath of the February tornado that knocked out power in the town, but added that the board’s written appreciation to the company “in no way implies support” for the rate hike.
“Eversource is requesting an annual ‘per meter’ increase of $162 in western Mass. while only $50 in the east,” wrote Armstrong. “This disparity is unfair and contributes to the economic difficulties in our region.”
Yet Armstrong, writing as a customer as well as selectboard member, added, “My strongest opposition is based on what feels like an outright attack on residential and commercial solar.”
He criticized the requested new “demand charges” for customers who have installed solar arrays.
“They give customers an incentive to move heavy power use to periods of low demand, basically at night. … During the utility’s peak demand, solar customers are usually drawing no electricity from the grid at all. To apply a demand charge to customers with solar for their consumption at night during off-peak hours is just punitive.”
Suzanne Patnaude of Greenfield, testified, “Eversource’s rate of return in 2016 was over 13 percent, while the national average for electric utilities was around 9 percent. … Perhaps the only way to keep up with our electric bills here in the Pioneer Valley is to be an Eversource shareholder — or one of its executives.” She referred to the reported $17.8 million compensation package for utility CEO Tom May when he retired last year.
Attorney General Maura Healey, who delivered testimony personally against the requested rate hike on April 10 in Pittsfield, was represented Wednesday by Assistant Attorney General John Geary. He said, “the proposal is excessive and puts the interests of shareholders over the interests of customers. When so many customers today are struggling to make ends meet and businesses are trying to lower their energy costs to maintain and grow jobs, it is time to return money to customers, not to raise their rates.”
Claire Chang of Gill told the DPU that the issues are bigger than simply Eversource’s rate case, and she urged the regulators to require an independent cost of solar study to determine the true costs and benefits of solar.
“You need facts and real numbers to make any determination,” said Chang, pointing to similar studies that have been done in other states. “You can’t just take their numbers.”
She added, “This rate case is just another piece of the puzzle, for them to grab as much as they can. … It is up to you to be our stewards, and to hold the line. They’re trying to erase the chalkboard as fast as they can to get solar out of the way. If they owned the solar, they would be perfectly happy, but when we own the solar, it’s bad, very bad.”
Several of those testifying said in addition to residential rates being raised, so would the charges on businesses, which would then be forced to pass on those added costs to customers, and that nonprofit organizations, too, would have to turn to donors in the community to recover their added costs — all so that shareholders could be guaranteed what Healey had termed “unreasonably high” profits.
Nancy Hazard of Greenfield called a 10.5 rate of return sought by the utility “usurious,” and said its proposed rate design for solar customers would be “counter to society’s ultimate goal … to transition to zero carbon, 100 percent renewably produced electricity,” and despite its anxiety, “Eversource needs to go back to the drawing board and come forward with a different long-range plan that supports the desire and the commitment made by Massachusetts residents in the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act.”
Emma Stamas of Colrain testified that Eversource customers who had invested in installing and maintaining photovoltaic systems for their homes “are being given a bait-and-switch now” in the proposed rates. “These people are going to be cheated out of that investment.”
Written comments are being accepted by the DPU through May 31, with evidentiary hearings to follow.

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