The state’s utility regulator is looking into whether Vermont’s electric companies should have to provide rate discounts for low-income customers.
The Public Utility Commission formal inquiry launched earlier this month comes in the midst of multiple utilities seeking approval for rate increases and a widespread push for more electric vehicles.
“In general, the plight of low-income people, and moderate-income people for that matter, as electric rates continue to go up is something of concern to us,” said Anthony Roisman, chair of the PUC.
In their order opening the investigation, the commissioners also say that “more and more Vermonters” will need to switch from fossil fuel-powered cars and heating units to devices powered by renewable electricity to meet the state’s climate goals.
Although the state is supposed to have reduced emissions a quarter below 1990 levels by 2012, emissions are 13% higher than that. Transportation accounts for over 44% of those emissions.
“While these changes would save many Vermonters money on their overall energy bills, they could significantly increase their electric bill,” write the commissioners.
Vermont’s largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power, has had lower rates for customers who make at or below 150% of the federal poverty level since 2012. GMP’s Energy Assistance Program, started by the PUC after an AARP petition, is funded through a dollar charge on residential customer bills and a staggered charge for small and large businesses.
Eligible Vermonters can apply through the state Department for Children and Families to receive a 25% discount and possible forgiveness on past due bills. As of last fall, more than 10,000 customers had enrolled in the program.
In 2018, GMP filed to return a portion of their energy assistance fund to customers because participation had “lagged behind what was originally expected,” according to a PUC order approving the refund. The PUC allowed the utility to do a one-time rebate of $2.43 million to ratepayers in 2018 and hire a consultant to review the program.
Consultant GDS Associates said in a report this past November that 25%-30% of eligible GMP customers have signed up to receive lower rates — in line with participation in similar programs around the country. The consultant notes that programs with higher participation rates typically have larger discounts and require that participants are part of other social service programs.
“One of the things we’re going to be looking at is ‘what is it that is keeping people from taking advantage of a program that is designed to reduce their electric bill?’” Roisman said. He added that this review could include everything from program advertising to including incentives for efficient electricity use.
When asked whether GMP was making any changes to its energy assistance program after the consultant report came out, Kristin Kelly, utility spokesperson, said that would be considered as part of the PUC investigation.
“We’re enthusiastic about the PUC looking into it and we’re looking forward to working collaboratively to enhance” the program, she said.
One challenge in universally requiring a bill assistance program is that some smaller utilities have a relatively high number of low-income ratepayers, said Roisman. “So it’s not quite so easy for them as, say, it would be for a GMP to put a charge on” customer bills, he added.
Washington Electric Co-op filed for a 5.95% rate increase last summer. The utility also proposed lowering its per kilowatt hour rate while increasing its fixed customer charge to provide it with more financial stability and to encourage more members to “go electric.”
The commission, noting that this proposed change could negatively affect customers who are both low-income and don’t use much electricity, required the utility to phase in the customer charge increase. The PUC also required the co-op to work with the Department of Public Service to come up with a bill assistance program.
Patty Richards, general manager of WEC, said that the utility would “love to offer something” to reduce rates for its low-income members.
“But the reality is, that’s going to come from other consumers,” she added.
Richards added that she’s excited for the PUC to open an investigation for all the utilities to take part in “because if we can all put our heads together to come up with something that’s fair and consistent across the state, that just makes it easier for everybody.”
WEC is not the only Vermont electric utility that has sought rate increases in the past year. The Hyde Park Electric Department filed for an almost 16% rate increase last fall. And last summer, the PUC approved a 2.72% rate increase for Green Mountain Power.
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