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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Conn. Republicans want $190M for Eversource, UI to help offset rate increases

    Hartford — In their first joint news conference, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora and new Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding on Friday called for $190 million in federal pandemic relief to be paid to the state's electric utilities for lost income when the state prohibited customer power shutoffs during the height of COVID-19.

    The proposal comes as utility companies Eversource and United Illuminating are proposing significant rate increases for the average residential customer, including $38 per month for Eversource and $26 for UI. There are varying factors for the proposed increases, including the companies looking to collect for customers having not paid their bills during a moratorium tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Candelora said that during the nearly 20 years he has served in the General Assembly, he has never seen the kind of "sniping" currently going on between Democrats, regulators and the electric companies, including United Illuminating and Eversource.

    "We are the second-highest utility rate in the continental United States," said Harding, R-Brookfield, during a morning news conference a week after he took over the 12-member GOP Senate caucus from state Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford.

    "Every single month it makes them consider their budget and makes them consider possibly moving out of the state. Our constituents across the state deserve better from every single one of us," he added.

    They blamed Democrats, who have 97-54 and 24-12 majorities in the House and Senate, respectively, for the high electric bills.

    "I think that's a lot of crap," said state Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, co-chairman of the legislative Energy and Technology Committee, after the half-hour GOP news conference. "We have the second-highest electric rates in the country for a lot of reasons: end of the pipeline, some of it is we choose to have a very, very forested state with power lines running through the state that makes the grid very vulnerable, in my opinion."

    Needleman noted that if he had been in the General Assembly back in 2017, he would have joined Republican efforts to help keep Millstone open, when Dominion Energy threatened to close it. Southeastern Connecticut needed jobs and economic development, near his district, while the state needed — and still needs — the 2,300 megawatts of carbon-free energy it produces. "Losing that asset on the grid would have been difficult," Needleman told reporters.

    "We've come through five years of trauma," Needleman said, adding that the 30,000 hardship customers — out of about 1.5 million customers overall — who had their moratorium extended for one six-month period, was important because of the spike in energy costs.

    He said that the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority will consider the Revenue Adjustment Mechanism that governs payments for the annual winter moratoriums, which were extended during the end of the pandemic. "I am sure that both utilities have an allowance for bad debt that is typical, that is built into their rate base," he said.

    Needleman noted that a state Supreme Court decision announced Friday morning affirmed PURA's rate-making powers, saving ratepayers $80 million. "When you give them money and it gets diverted into bonuses as opposed to line people, that annoys me," he said of the utilities, who were prohibited in legislation last year from charging customers for lobbying costs and bonuses.

    "At a time of trying to mitigate climate change we are asking our utilities to do more than they have ever done before," Needleman said. "That's why you need more scrutiny on them. I listened to some of the Republican comments — we need to give them what they want otherwise they're not going to meet our goals — that's another energy gun to our heads."

    Chris Phelps, state director for Environment Connecticut, said in an interview after the news conference that a majority of the rate increases in recent years comes from the 2017 decision to support the Millstone plant.

    "The vast majority of what they're screaming about comes from the cost of our existing nuclear power plants," Phelps said. "Memories are short, especially when you voted for the thing that you're now upset about. The legislature, supported by some of the same folks standing up there today, passed a law requiring utilities to buy electricity from Millstone at a fixed cost. That was to prop up the existing nuclear plant. They also wrote that the cost of that would get passed on to ratepayers. That is the lion's share of what UI and Eversource are asking the ratepayers now that's got these folks up in arms. Now the bill is coming due."

    During a far-reaching news conference on one of the legislature's toughest, most-complicated subjects, GOP lawmakers also criticized Gov. Ned Lamont for not appointing new members to PURA or even reappointing current members whose terms have expired. They also proposed removing the authority, which oversees rate setting by the utilities, from under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

    Lamont's office defended PURA. Julia Bergman, chief spokesperson for the governor, said Friday afternoon that PURA's connection with the DEEP is just administrative.

    As for PURA, "the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority is functioning as it should be as an autonomous agency that balances the interests of ratepayers with the need to have a clean, reliable, and affordable energy grid," Bergman said in a statement. "As the governor recently said, he has no plans to make changes to the makeup of PURA. The governor supports the shift to performance-based regulation as a way to protect ratepayers and ensure they are getting a good return on their investment while also reducing uncertainty for utility companies. He does agree with Republicans that we need to bring in more renewable energy sources at a lower cost and is actively working to do that."

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