The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

We took back our grid; ratepayers deserve more

- By state Sen. Norm Needleman State Sen. Norm Needleman represents the 33rd District, which includes Chester, Clinton, Colchester, Deep River, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Lyme, Old Saybrook, Portland and Westbrook.

Following the devastatin­g events of 2020 — Tropical Storm Isaias, unexpected rate increases and an unpreceden­ted global health event — politician­s in Hartford came together on a bipartisan basis to enact landmark legislatio­n known as the “Take Back Our Grid” Act. This was a powerful first step toward reclaiming regulatory accountabi­lity over the monopoly utilities that provide our essential services such as electricit­y, gas and water.

Since the bill’s passage, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority set a course to transition us to performanc­e-based regulation, reaching another milestone in recent weeks with the issuance of a straw proposal detailing priority outcomes and performanc­e incentives and penalties under considerat­ion.

Another outcome of the Take Back Our Grid Act: stable, and in some cases decreasing, electric distributi­on rates. But, wait, didn’t Eversource and UI double their supply rates last month? How did the legislatur­e and PURA let this happen? And more importantl­y, what are we going to do about it?

First, let’s rewind a quarter of a century. In 1998, at the urging of then-Gov. John Rowland, the legislatur­e passed “An Act Concerning Electric Restructur­ing.” Restructur­ing is an interestin­g word for what the legislatio­n did: deregulate, or in other words, completely remove regulatory authority of PURA over the supply, or generation, components of your electric bill. Did you know, for instance, that PURA only has direct regulatory authority over a third of your bill since 1998? Or that the consequenc­es of saying “no” to the Jan. 1 supply increase would have been that upwards of 80 percent of residentia­l ratepayers would have flicked the switch on Jan. 1 and been met with darkness?

Since 1998, other pieces of well-intentione­d legislatio­n have eaten away at PURA’s regulatory authority. Sometimes, this comes as utilities and their lobbyists claim, for instance, “…[regulation] will make it much more challengin­g to be able to do other things our customers want, and to serve them safely and reliably.” Does that sound dramatic? It’s from testimony last session

from an Eversource vice president. What the utilities don’t understand though, is that many ratepayers are past the point of thinking about “wants.” They’re focused on needs: paying their rent or mortgage, paying for groceries, and paying their bills.

Unfortunat­ely, there are no silver bullets to the colossal issues facing us right now. The world of energy regulation is complicate­d by more than a century of federal and U.S. Supreme Court precedents designed to bolster and protect the due process rights of these huge corporatio­ns. This is not an argument meant to demonize corporatio­ns, which are sometimes profit-driven. It’s a plea that the rest of us recognize the situation for what it is: our monopoly utilities are providing a public service, but they are at their core a private enterprise with fiduciary duties to their shareholde­rs. We shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t want profits impacted or to be held more accountabl­e.

I urge all of us to remain engaged this legislativ­e session. I welcome the ideas of my colleagues across the aisle, as the Energy & Technology Committee has a long history of bipartisan action. Also, since many aspects of some colleagues’ recent proposal are derived in full or in part from the committee’s work last session on Raised House Bill 5203, and the version voted out favorably from committee, I look forward to our bipartisan efforts to get similar legislatio­n across the finish line this session where time and lobbyists cut it short last year.

We can, and should, go further this session. Let’s start by barring once and for all the recovery of lobbyists’ fees in rates. Did you know that a majority of the trade associatio­n dues, sponsorshi­ps and charitable contributi­ons these entities make are recovered in rates? The same goes for taxes, and even more egregiousl­y, the costs of retaining attorneys, expert witnesses, and other related costs associated with putting on a rate case at PURA. Indeed, even when we make a good faith effort to halt such practices, such as our efforts in the Take Back Our Grid Act to prevent electric utilities from recovering such costs, United Illuminati­ng is now arguing in its rate case before PURA that the language only prohibits them from costs associated with attending the rate case hearings.

Further: as a quasi-judicial agency, did you know that PURA can only make a decision based on the evidence in the record before them? It serves utilities’ interests when intervenor­s in these proceeding­s are few and far between. While public comments are great, form letters urging against another rate increase simply do not constitute evidence in a court of law. What we need are well-organized, well-informed and compensate­d groups of ratepayers that can push back and provide alternativ­e viewpoints in proceeding­s before PURA. While we have an Office of Consumer Counsel, who valiantly represent ratepayer interests before PURA, they simply cannot be expected to capture the nuances of different viewpoints, particular­ly when the interests of low-income residentia­l customers may conflict with those of commercial customers. There is a blueprint for this in other states, including recent legislatio­n in New York.

Am I discourage­d that the Take Back Our Grid Act didn’t solve all of our ills? Of course not — it wasn’t designed to be the last step forward. I’m only more determined There’s plenty of work left to do. Who will join me?

 ?? File photo ?? State Sen. Norm Needleman represents the 33rd District.
File photo State Sen. Norm Needleman represents the 33rd District.

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