Advocates call on utility to lower proposed electric rate hike

PAWTUCKET – Vickiana Mora, a single mother from Providence, is behind on her electric bill and received notice that she faces termination of service. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if state regulators approve a proposed rate hike by Rhode Island Energy that could see her monthly bill climb by nearly 50%.

“I need help,” she said Friday through a translator.

Minerva Tavarez, a Providence resident who lives on Social Security, has been warned that her electricity, too, could be shut off because of missed payments. Also speaking in her native Spanish, she said Rhode Island Energy has offered to set up a payment plan, but she said she still won’t be able to afford the installments.

“They don’t have compassion,” she said.

The two women spoke Friday at a news conference in Pawtucket to rally opposition to the proposal by Rhode Island’s biggest energy utility to raise electric rates to record-high levels for the state. The event came a week before the Public Utilities Commission is set to hold hearings on the proposal that, if approved, would go into effect Oct. 1 and see the residential rate more than double to 17.8 cents a kilowatt hour.

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Rates always go up in the winter as demand spikes for natural gas, a key home heating fuel for New England and also a critical source of power generation for the region’s electric grid. But this winter is unlike any other. Rates are spiraling upward throughout New England, with some utilities putting forward proposals even higher than Rhode Island Energy’s.

In filings with the PUC, the company blames the price spike on increasing demand for energy worldwide as economies recover from the COVID pandemic, as well as on the war in Ukraine. With European countries turning away from Russian gas, they’ve driven up the price of supplies from elsewhere.

Although Rhode Island Energy says it has no choice but to raise rates, speakers at the news conference organized by The George Wiley Center, a group that advocates for the poor, disagreed. They called on the company to recalculate the numbers so it shares in the burden.

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“Rhode Island Energy is trying to justify their record-level rate hikes by saying the market costs for energy are increasing due to inflation, therefore we, the community, have to take on the economic burden. And I say no,” state Rep. David Morales, D-Providence. “Instead, what we are demanding is that Rhode Island Energy directly absorbs some of these increasing energy costs.”

Gov. Dan McKee has urged the PUC to spread out the cost of the increase beyond the regular six-month rate period. He’s also planning to use nearly $4 million in state funds to offset the impact on the bills of low-income customers, among other measures.

Rhode Island Energy said it shares “the George Wiley Center’s concern about escalating energy prices impacted by global conflicts and constrained supplies.”

“That’s why we are working with regulators to ensure that bill credits and debt forgiveness committed to as part of PPL’s purchase of The Narragansett Electric Company will be credited to accounts in the coming months,” the company said. “Discount rates, budget billing and payment assistance plans are also available for those who need it, helping provide additional relief.”

Camilo Viveiros, executive director of the George Wiley Center, said that Rhode Islanders are already struggling with inflation and shouldn’t accept an increase in utility costs.

“This is an attack on our communities. This is an attack on the disabled. This is an attack on seniors,” Viveiros said. “And we reject it.”

Last week, Rhode Island Energy submitted a proposal with the PUC to also raise rates for natural gas service, citing the same factors that are driving the electric rate increase.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Advocates call on utility to lower proposed electric rate hike for RI