NARRAGANSETT - Last Thursday, ongoing public hearings regarding National Grid’s proposed base distribution rate increase came to Narragansett Town Hall. The hearing, hosted by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC), saw a handful of members of the public rail against the energy giant’s hike request, which is intended to generate about $41 million and affects a wide variety of customers around the state. As the state’s regulatory body on utilities, any rate increase on National Grid’s part must be approved by the PUC. The proceeding began with a word from Jennifer Hutchinson, National Grid Senior Counsel, on the intent behind the rate increase.
“National Grid’s base distribution rates fund our core operating expenses, and have remain unchanged since 2013,” she said. “This proposal will allow us to continue to operate the electric and gas distribution systems on a safe and reliable basis for customers, maintain a qualified and dedicated workforce, meet the changing needs and expectations of our customers and the community that we serve and provide increased support for income-eligible customers.”
“We understand there is never a good time to raise rates,” Hutchinson continued. “And we are always mindful of the impact that rate increases have on our customers. However, the company’s base distribution rates have not changed in five years. The request we made is necessary to continue to provide the level of service our customers expect.”
The rate comes on the heels of another increase, approved by the PUC in August, which raised energy rates 53 percent from October through March. National Grid cited rising production costs in its justification of the request. The energy company is prohibited from profiting from energy consumption under state law, and only profits from energy distribution.
The newest proposal would result in a 6 percent increase for residential electricity customers ($6 for average customer), while commercial and industrial electricity rates would rise 3 to 9 percent, depending on size and monthly customer usage. Further, a 5 percent increase for gas customers (about $65 for the average customer) is proposed, and commercial and industrial gas customers would see a hike of 1 to 6 percent under the new rates.
The hearing Thursday then shifted to public testimony, which was heard by PUC members Abigail Anthony, Marion S. Gold and chair Margaret Curran.
“About 30 percent or so [of our financial assistance] is around electricity and utility bills that folks can’t pay off,” said Jennifer Krueger, an employee at the Johnnycake Center of Peace Dale. “I find it’s hard for folks to learn and realize they are eligible for the [low income] rate. I’m doing a lot of education around that because people simply do not know they are eligible for that program and I feel like that’s something the utility could do more about, and that sounds like part of your plan.”
Krueger also said when she attempted to call the Rhode Island Department of Health and Human Services to receive verification of eligibility (a requirement of participating in National Grid’s low-income program), she was put on hold for two and a half hours.
“That process is clearly not useful to the consumer and it definitely needs to be looked at,” she said. “It seems pretty insufficient.”
Krueger also called for more “human access” to the utility in South County.
Doug Gobeille, a local educator, said he has seen nothing but increases from the utility in recent years.
“In the last few years, I have seen my rates rise,” he said. “I have worked very hard to insulate my house, I have a wood stove, I do just about everything in my power, as a farmer, to keep things going. And the less energy I use, the higher my bills go.”
“During Halloween, we had a storm with no name take down my power for five days,” Gobeille continued. “I’m a scientist, I’m a physicist, my specialty and PhD is in high-energy physics. I know a lot about this. For a storm to have a name, the National Weather Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must give it a name. The Weather Channel is a private industry, it does not name storms. The storm we had [last weekend] was not Riley and the storm we had [Wednesday] was not Quinn - they do not meet, in any way, the criteria in order to name a storm, yet I had several phone calls from National Grid telling me the name of the storm. It overstates the impact. You see, for a storm to have name, it must have a certain amount of energy associated with it. Neither of these storms met or even came close to that threshold.”
Gobeille was referring to a nameless, late-October storm which left thousands of Rhode Islanders without power for an extended period of time. National Grid faced criticism from both the public and the government officials for its response time in restoring power, with many noting power returned to Massachusetts customers at a much quicker and efficient rate.
“I have spent the better part north of three percent of my last year, from Halloween, until this week, 10 days without power,” Gobeille said. “This is incredible to me. I lost money on my harvest at Halloween. We need power to get things done. I have animals that nearly died this last weekend because they’re not mammals and they don’t produce their own heat. It is half a month’s bill from national grid for me to run a generator for one day to keep things alive that help me to eat everyday. Again, no matter what I do, my bills go up.”
Gobeille said storms such as these would only get more prevalent and more energetic as climate change took place, adding National Grid’s use of fossil fuels would only add to this increase in intensity.
“Off of our coast, is what is frequently regarded as the Saudi Arabia of wind,” he said. “Between Block Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, we have more wind per square mile than any other place on the planet but we want to import natural gas. I hear we’re going to be improving the grid and the resiliency of the grid, I see the grid falls down, we pick it back up, grid falls down, we pick it back up. This is madness. How much money are we spending to maintain the oldest power grid on the planet?”
Martin Lepkowski asked for more transparency in regard to the need for a rate increase and the salaries of National Grid executives. Edwin Rivera felt similarly.
“National Grid is a greedy company, they don’t care about the people of Rhode Island,” Rivera said. “Because they want to make more money, put it in their pocket and give it to the stock people. You’re drowning us. More money for what? Explain to us why you want that money. These people are not from here. Do you live in Central Falls? Do you live in Providence?”
The PUC has already hosted public hearings in Pawtucket, Newport, Richmond, Providence. The next hearing is scheduled for March 15 at the PUC office in Warwick.