Are you paying too much for your heating bill?

Critics charge that lax regulation is inflating utility costs in Rhode Island
By STEVEN STYCOS  |  September 10, 2008

Mar56yBray_01.jpg
COLD COMFORT Rising heating costs may focus more attention this winter on PUC commissioners
(left to right) Bray, Germani, and Holbrook, but for now, Harsch is among a small band of outspoken
critics.

As winter approaches and energy prices rise worldwide, Rhode Islanders will wince when they open their monthly bills for electricity and natural gas.

For all the unwelcome sting of these worsening costs, most consumers feel powerless to change the situation.

Yet after watching the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approve a 21.7 percent increase in National Grid’s electricity prices in July, and a nine percent hike in the company’s natural gas prices, two outspoken critics are renewing calls to revamp the state agency.

The PUC, they say, represents the interests of the utilities, not the public— in part because Republican Governor Donald L. Carcieri’s reappointed former utility executives to key regulatory posts.

In mid-winter, the PUC will gain further scrutiny when National Grid seeks further rate increases. By January, it must again adjust electric rates due to changes in fuel prices.

In addition, the PUC in March will review National Grid’s long-term electricity purchasing contracts, which will affect rates starting in 2010. In the short term, gas prices should remain the roughly the same. The PUC is currently considering a National Grid request for a five percent rate hike to pay for its pipes and overhead, and a separate 4.6 percent rate decrease due to lower than expected natural gas prices.

The recent rate hikes mean the typical residential electricity user’s bill will climb about $16 a month, to $93, according to a state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers’ analysis. The typical residential natural gas bill will increase about $10 a month, to $130. Since July 2002, natural gas rates have risen 51 percent, according to the analysis, and electricity rates 72 percent.

J. William Harsch, a lawyer in War-wick, who chaired the PUC in 1975 and 1976, says state regulators are doing a miserable job. “They have so totally screwed up regulation of utilities in Rhode Island,” he says, “we would probably be better off without them.”

PUC commissioners insist they were compelled to approve National Grid’s recent rate-hike requests because federal and state regulators already approved the company’s contracts to purchase gas and electricity, and since state law requires the PUC to pass those costs on to consumers. Growing worldwide demand for fossil fuels and a non-existent federal energy policy are to blame, they say, not their purported allegiance to the utilities.

Such comments infuriate Harsch. “If they are that helpless, find another job,” he fumes. Referring to his tenure as PUC chairman, he says, “We found ways to deal with automatic [increases].”
 
Hearings, perhaps in cooperation with other states in which National Grid operates, should have been held to determine if the London-based company’s energy purchases were prudent, Harsch says. If the utility was found not to be prudent in its buying of energy futures, he adds, “The commission has the ability to make [National Grid] swallow some of their indiscretion.”

The problem, he concludes, is, “Two commissioners are committed totally to the well-being of the utility.”

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |   next >
  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Karina Lutz,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY STEVEN STYCOS
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   AN UNLIKELY CLASH: WIND DEVELOPERS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS  |  January 13, 2010
    The growing push for wind power in Rhode Island is creating friction between wind developers and an unlikely group of critics: environmentalists.
  •   AN OBAMA CONFIDANT ON THE SURGE IN AFGHANISTAN  |  December 02, 2009
    Twenty-four hours before President Barack Obama announced a 30,000-troop escalation of the Afghan War, one of his key foreign policy advisors provided a view of the president’s thinking at Brown University.
  •   DEBATING THE MIDDLE EAST MUDDLE  |  June 17, 2009
    US military aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan is being wasted and should be redirected to the police and moderate non-violent groups working for education and the rule of law, according to two Middle East experts who spoke Sunday at the Community Church of Providence.
  •   BATTLE OVER OPEN SPACE IN NORTH PROVIDENCE  |  May 27, 2009
    Will the last large piece of open space in North Providence turn into the site of 47 single family homes? That decision currently rests with the Rhode Island General Assembly and the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The outcome could jeopardize open space preservation statewide.
  •   YOU SNUS YOU LOSE  |  May 13, 2009
    Unbowed by last month's $1 a pack increase in the cigarette tax, the tobacco industry is pushing new unhealthy products to gain more Rhode Island customers.

 See all articles by: STEVEN STYCOS