Utility rate hike draws fire from consumers, activists

Consumers and activists wave signs as Governor Dan McKee testifies before the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission at a hearing considering rate increases requested by Rhode Island Energy for electric and gas to offset rising energy costs September 16, 2022. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

By Steve Klamkin WPRO News

A long list of people lined up Friday at a hearing by a state regulatory panel to denounce a rate increase requested by Rhode Island Energy to offset rising energy costs for both electric and gas ratepayers.

“The request for an increase on the electric rate reflects the highest increase in electric rates that I’ve ever seen in my 35 years of experience in the industry,” said Ron Gerwatowski, Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission. “So, it’s not surprising that most of the public comments that we’ve already received in writing are pleas that we deny it.”

Speaker after speaker denounced the increases, which for some electric customers, could add $52 per month to their utility bills.

Lead-off speaker Governor Dan McKee told the three-member commission that his office was already pledging to use millions in federal money and funds from the regional greenhouse gas initiative to help defray the increases, The Democratic governor warned the sharp increase in rates could have a negative effect on the state’s post-pandemic economic comeback.

“Coming out of COVID right now, we are in an economic recovery that is quicker than anywhere in the Northeast, second in the country,” McKee testified. “What’s gonna stall that is going to be these type of expenses that the consumers will have to bear as well as the small businesses and the business community.”

McKee pointed out that inflationary pressures that grew acute after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year played only a part in the sharp increase in energy costs.

Monica Huertas, who works with foster parents, warned many tell her they could no longer afford to take in foster children.

“Kids are going to be disposed of because they just simply cannot afford to keep the kids in their home,” she said.

Rate hikes would have an adverse impact on people already behind in paying their utility bills, said Benny Grayson of Woonsocket, who works with the George Wiley Center, which organizers members of the low-income community.

“After the long, hot summer months they are already behind in their electric bill that absorbed a lot of their money. And to take on a rate increase at this point could be very devastating to us, because we’re already behind,” Grayson said.

Gerwatowski said the Commission would continue to take testimony today, and again next week, both in-person and via Zoom.