Eversource rate case gets another hearing in Pittsfield
This story has been modified to add comments by an Eversource spokeswoman.
PITTSFIELD — Aug. 1, the start of a hot month, could deliver even more heat in Pittsfield, when a much-maligned electricity rate proposal comes back for more public comment.
Civic and business leaders will be lining up to take another whack at an Eversource proposal they see as an assault on their bottom lines.
After its proposed rate increases for 2018 and 2019 were condemned at a standing-room-only public hearing April 10, Eversource blinked.
The publicly traded utility filed a new plan. By tweaking its "rate design" mechanism, Eversource would reduce the impact of higher electricity costs on large-scale users in the Berkshires starting Jan. 1. The adjustment did not buffer increases eyed for residential customers.
But the utility's 11th-hour change would spare Onyx Specialty Papers Inc. of South Lee the 32-percent electricity rate hike it faced, cutting the increase to 16 percent, according to Patricia Begrowicz, the company's president.
"It was be very significant," she said Thursday of the initial increase, which she lambasted at the April hearing convened by the state Department of Public Utilities. "So that's very good."
But Begrowicz plans to speak again at the Aug. 1 hearing.
"They're still asking for $96 million and they're still a very profitable company," Begrowicz said of Eversource. "This overall rate increase request in unacceptable."
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said she also plans to speak. She said she will be reviewing Eversource's adjustments and welcomes a reduction in higher costs for large-scale commercial and industrial customers.
"I still need to understand the fine print," she said.
Nonetheless, the impact on the city and on residential rate-payers is as harsh as the utility's original proposal, Tyer said. "And that is absolutely unacceptable."
An Eversource executive defended the increases at the April hearing, saying the utility needed to respond to a $35.7 million operating deficit in the western half of its business, where it has 209,000 customers, and a $60.2 million shortfall to the east, where its NSTAR Electric Co. unit has 1.2 million customers.
Priscilla Ress, an Eversource spokeswoman, said Friday the $96 million the utility seeks to raise is money it has already invested in the electrical system “that we aren't getting back through our rates.”
“We've been analyzing our costs and there's a revenue deficiency on what is necessary to invest to maintain and improve the system,” she said.
She said the need for that revenue is documented in the company’s filings with the DPU. “This is a very open process and we continue to provide information as requested.”
Attorney General Maura Healey is fighting the Eversource request. She told the overflow Pittsfield audience in April at the Berkshire Athenaeum that "it's time to return money to customers, not to raise their electric bills to benefit a highly profitable utility company."
The DPU set the Aug. 1 Pittsfield hearing, along with an Aug. 2 hearing in Barnstable, because Eversource filed its plan to adjust overall costs after all public hearings had been held.
Marc J. Tassone, the DPU's hearing officer, said in a filing Monday that the new hearings are needed to give all stakeholders a chance to comment on how the change would affect them.
While 18 large-scale customers in the Berkshires would see their proposed rate increase cut by as much as half, utility customers elsewhere face increases.
Under terms of the initial filing, large-scale customers in the former Western Massachusetts Electric Co. territory faced increases of 36 percent or so, while their peers to the east, in the NSTAR Electric Co. region, would actually have seen their rates fall.
The DPU has been holding hearings on aspects of the first Eversource filing, but not on matters related to the company's proposed change in the "rate design" system. Instead, the DPU will kick off that part of the process July 10, when parties face a deadline to file an interest in the proceedings.
That will be followed by a July 26 public hearing in Boston, the two regional hearings and then a string of deadlines for written testimony and rebuttals. Public comment closes Aug. 31, after which the DPU will hold five days of evidentiary hearings on Eversource's rate design system.
The regulatory agency says it will decide all aspects of the Eversource case in time for any proposed increases to begin as planned Jan. 1.
The DPU this week ordered Eversource to make copies of its revised rate design proposal available on its website, eversource.com, and in the city's public library, at 1 Wendell Ave.
Begrowicz, president of Onyx Specialty Papers Inc., said the revised proposal shifts the burden of higher rates, but doesn't trim the overall amount Eversource seeks to raise.
"Somebody's picking that up," she said, noting that other commercial and industrial customers in the NSTAR region might face higher costs.
In this region, the increases for so-called G4 customers, the largest power users, would have risen a total of $2.2 million, or an average of $123,000 for all 18 customers in that group in the Berkshires.
By contrast, the 112 customers in that category in the NSTAR region would have seen an overall drop in rates of $34,000.
Under the new filing, the 18 Berkshires customers would face an overall increase of $840,000 — or an average increase of $46,600 each.
In another change, the utility proposes to increase the discount for low-income customers from 30 percent to 36 percent in the NSTAR region, matching the rate already used in western Massachusetts. But Begrowicz said her reading of the filings suggests that eligibility rules could change.
"That may be a point of conflict," she said.
The utility has faced criticism for not moving sooner to blend operations of WMECO and NSTAR. "Typically it will get cheaper with the larger company," Begrowicz said of newly merged entities. "But it was the opposite here."
It is moving now to do that, in the later filing, by proposing to charge the same rates for residential customers, though not for commercial and industrial customers.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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