As Ratepayer Rage Mounts Utility Authority Suspends Eversource's Latest Rate Increase
UPDATE: This report was updated at 3 pm on Friday, July 31 to reflect a utility authority order to rescind the most recent Eversource rate increase, which had not yet been announced when it was first posted earlier in the day.
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Connecticut's utility regulatory authority is temporarily suspending the latest Eversource electricity rate July 31, just hours after the utility began offering assistance to ratepayers who are enraged by or otherwise unable to immediately pay electricity bills that have spiked over the last rate cycle due to a number of factors.
While state and federal officials are also scrambling to address increases outside the utility’s control, the Connecticut Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA) on Friday afternoon temporarily suspended its June 26 rate increase authorization, "and orders [Eversource] to immediately restore rates to those in effect as of June 30, 2020. Specifically, as soon as practicable, but no later than August 7, 2020, and until directed otherwise by the Authority."
Earlier Friday, Eversource Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer Penni Conner had announced the utility is extending financial assistance and working with customers to manage and reduce their future bills. The energy company said it had "fielded thousands of individual calls from customers this week" and continues working to connect customers with energy efficiency and payment support solutions, including a no-fee, no-interest COVID-19 payment plan.
“We share the concerns of our customers and know that this is an unexpected cause of distress during an already challenging time,” said Conner. “We’re committed to working one-on-one with customers to help reduce their energy bills and to provide flexible payment solutions. Our customer care number is 800-286-2000, and we’re here to help any customer who calls.”
Following news that PURA was being urged by state legislators to open a new inquiry about the unexpected surge in combined rates this week, and in order to support customers facing financial hardship and other challenges due to COVID-19, Eversource worked with the authority to create a no-fee, no-interest COVID-19 Payment Program that is available to all customers who need it.
Additionally, Eversource is expanding eligibility for qualifying customers to the New Start program, which forgives overdue balances as customers make current payments to their bill.
Reconsidering Rate Increases
The interim rate rollback came just a day after PURA responded to calls from state legislators including leadership of the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee, saying the authority accepted their written request as a formal motion for reconsideration in the associated docketed proceeding — Docket Number 20-01-01 — and expects to expeditiously rule on the motion after considering comments received by other stakeholders and members of the public.
That late December 2019 Docket approved a number of rate increases requested by the utility that went into effect on January 1, but Eversource contends that the sudden and surprising rate escalation in recent weeks was driven primarily by a significant increase in summer energy use, and two recent fee increases added to the delivery component of the bill.
Conner’s release states that energy bills often increase in the summer months, and this June was 13 degrees hotter than June 2019. Combined with the fact that many customers are staying home due to the pandemic and using air conditioners, fans and other appliances to stay cool, the utility VP said average residential energy use increased 26 percent over June of last year.
In addition, a state-mandated energy subsidy went into effect in July to support the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant’s continued operation. Also, another fee increased to support grid reliability and the safe operation of Eversource’s high-voltage transmission system.
Also late Thursday afternoon, US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and Connecticut Attorney General William Tong reacted to utility consumers’ complaints firing off a joint letter to Neil Chatterjee, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) urging the agency to rescind the Transmission Access Charge (TAC) — and to rebate consumers for the increase paid to date — for a minimum of one year.
A TAC is defined as the charge for delivery of electricity over the high-voltage power lines from the generation company to Eversource.
“For years, Connecticut has been plagued with some of the highest energy costs in the nation, prohibiting local families and businesses from sustaining their energy contracts. While we recognize that TACs are derived from a previously-approved FERC tariff formula, we also recognize that the existing high energy costs and the escalating coronavirus crisis have resulted in an acutely unusual circumstance in which the status quo is simply no longer applicable, nor acceptable,” wrote Blumenthal and Tong.
“Now is not the time for ratepayers to incur significantly higher electricity costs because, in part, transmission companies may recover a guaranteed 12 percent rate of return,” the officials wrote.
July 1 'Adjustments'
Blumenthal and Tong point out that FERC also elected to proceed with multiple administrative adjustments on July 1, resulting in increased consumer expenses. Assuming no increase in usage, they said a transmission rate change would have caused a customer’s monthly bill to increase by more than $9 compared to the transmission line charge in effect during June.
“FERC must immediately revisit and revise the way in which it approaches TACs, to stop the exploitation of Connecticut ratepayers — deplorable under any circumstance, but particularly heinous during times of crisis,” Tong and Blumenthal wrote.
Eversource acknowledged that the combination of charges may impact the need for customers to seek assistance, even if it is for the first time.
“All customers who need assistance — even if they have never applied for or needed assistance before — should reach out to us,” said Conner at Eversource. “We’re here and ready to help our customers.”
Customers seeking more information about available assistance are encouraged to call 800-286-2000. For more information about Eversource’s energy efficiency, payment plans and other customer support programs, visit eversource.com.
In regard to the Friday rate rollback order, PURA stated, "The Authority will reexamine the administrative changes to the energy and transmission adjustment clauses provisionally permitted by its June 26, 2020 letter. The intent of this reexamination is to ensure that Eversource is not over-collecting revenues in the short term at the expense of ratepayers during this period of financial hardship."
PURA is also urging Connecticut customers to contact their utility company if they need assistance with their electric bills by inquiring whether they are eligible for a financial hardship protection program or to enroll in a COVID-19 Payment Program offered by their utility company. More information on COVID-19 efforts can be found on PURA’s COVID Actions web page.
Utility customers may also contact PURA’s consumer services representatives with any inquiries or complaints related to this matter, which will be accounted for as part of the open investigation. PURA’s Education and Outreach Unit receives such correspondence by phone, toll-free in Connecticut at 800-382-4586 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.