Public weighs in on future utility rates

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 5:15pm
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On Thursday, Jan. 9 the three commissioners from the R.I. Public Utilities Commission, Margaret Curran, Marion Gold and Abigail Anthony, flanked by a team of staff, visited Block Island to hold a public hearing on the proposed rate case filed by the Block Island Utility District.

PUC Chairperson Curran opened the hearing. “We are here today for a public comment hearing,” she said before going on to outline the basic changes proposed in the filing.

Those changes include moving from two seasonal rates to three by incorporating a shoulder season; eliminating the residential demand and municipal rates; changing when and how peak usage is measured for large commercial demand rate customers; and the incorporation of an energy efficiency plan.

The Block Island Power Company’s rate structure last changed in 2008, and a lot has changed since then — especially in the past three years. Most significant was the installation of the Block Island Wind Farm, with the inclusion of a transmission cable from the mainland, the hiring of Jeffery Wright as president, bringing in industry experienced professionalism, and the transformation of the privately held company into a ratepayer-controlled not-for-profit.

Along the way there has been much skepticism in the community, but those who attended the meeting — town officials, Utility Board Commissioners, BIPCo employees, and members of the general public mostly expressed strong approval for the progress made to date.

While a couple of people asked that the pdf documents on the PUC’s website be made “searchable” due to their length, only two of the dozen people who spoke had negative comments.

John Hopf said he had been “promised a reduction in rates” that he didn’t think was delivered on.

Speaking next, First Warden Ken Lacoste, who said he was “here today as an individual,” went on to praise the company. “There are a lot of good things in this proposal,” he said, adding that the seasonal rate adjustments were “a really good idea.” He noted the “robust” upgrades to service and infrastructure that have been made and thought the rates could go down “when we get on the other side of it.”  

“My bills have gone down,” said Lacoste. “Overall it’s a good proposal. I support it.”

Mike McGinnes took issue with the demand rate, something that will go away on the residential side under the proposal. The demand rate kicks in when a customer pulls too much power from the system within a 15-minute timeframe.

“Our objective is to minimize the impact on residents and businesses,” said Utility District Treasurer Bill Penn.

Bill McCombe said: “Our rates are high, but the money we’re putting in is coming back. Good things are happening.”

“I hope people understand this is a first step,” said Elliot Taubman, who is the newest member of the District’s Board of Commissioners.

Resident David Lewis said he hadn’t brought prepared remarks, so would “ad lib.” He had, though, read all 275 pages of the rate filing and agreed that searchable pdf files would be “appreciated by the community.” He said the filing was informative and “rational and quite fair across all rates.” He said that the “direct testimony” by Wright was particularly helpful. Lewis also praised the Board of Commissioners for the “extraordinary effort put into transparency” and willingness to respond to criticism. “They’re doing an exemplary job.” After noting more examples of progress, he said: “The Utility district is a community enterprise. The people who got us here are to be congratulated.”

Longtime BIPCo employee Dave Milner said he had seen more progress in the past three years than in his entire career at the company.

“It’s a whole different way of looking at things, and I’m enjoying it,” he said. 

Town Facilities Manager Sam Bird, who said he was speaking on behalf of the town and Finance Director Amy Land, who was not present, said they had reviewed the impact of the rate change on town finances and found them “de minimis.” He said he “appreciated” the stability of the current rates (due to the substitute of the fluctuating fuel adjustment charge with a constant standard offer rate). “The town supports this rate case and would like to see it go forward.”

After the last person spoke, Hopf had a question. “Does the board have anything to say to us?”

“No,” said Curran, going on to explain that the PUC’s purpose for holding the hearing was simply to hear comments and concerns.

Christie Hetherington introduced herself as an employee of the Attorney General’s office who works with the PUC as a ratepayer advocate. “I really enjoyed hearing all of your comments,” she said.

In case anyone thought the support in the room meant a slam dunk for the Utility District, Curran stressed that rate cases don’t usually come out exactly as written.

An evidentiary hearing will be held in May at the PUC offices in Warwick. There will be another public comment hearing at a date and time to be announced.