Sen. Seminara: “Hear the voices of vulnerable seniors and disabled residents”

December 20, 2023

Two state gas companies seeking rate increases

Residents will be able to weigh in during hearings set for Jan. 17 and Feb. 16

By Ed Stannard

Hartford Courant

Two of the state’s natural gas utilities have asked to charge more to warm their customers’ homes and state residents will have a chance to weigh in soon.

Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas say they need more money primarily to replace aging pipes and to increase their workforces, including customer service employees.

Attorney General William Tong, who has said the utilities already make too much money, says he will be watching carefully to see if the companies, both owned by Avangrid, can justify the rise in consumer costs.

Connecticut Natural Gas is seeking a 4.3% increase, or $19.8 million, which would increase ratepayers’ bills by $6.68 a month. It serves the Hartford area, including towns north and south of the city, plus Mansfield and Greenwich. Its last increase was in 2018.

Southern Connecticut Gas has asked for a 9% increase, or $40.6 million, representing a $13.51 average jump in customers’ monthly bills. SCG serves the shoreline from Westport to Old Saybrook, towns north of New Haven such as Hamden and North Haven and additional Fairfield County towns. Its last increase was in 2017.

“There’s a couple of main drivers there,” said Dan Canavan, vice president for regulatory affairs for the two utilities.

“The two big ones are to maintain our Distribution Integrity Management Program, what we call DIMP. This is a program that’s federally approved by which gas companies across the country are replacing aging infrastructure, so old pipes that have been around for quite some time are being replaced with new pipes, and that’s certainly a safety and environmental concern.”

Canavan said the second reason for the rate increase request is to add 123 full-time equivalent employees “generally in two areas. One is in gas operations.” That need is based, he said, on feedback from the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which will decide on the rate increase.

“They want to see more employees out in the field maintaining those pipes and providing safe and reliable service to our customers,” Canavan said. “So we’re going to request that PURA increase our gas operation employee pool, as well as our customer service team. … They want to see more boots on the ground, if you will, in our Customer Service Department.”

He said the feedback from PURA came in other rate cases “as well as through our interaction with their gas pipeline safety unit.”

“I of course want investment in infrastructure, and I want safe, reliable infrastructure and access to natural gas for our customers,” Tong said. “But I’m going to scrutinize every last penny that they asked for, which, A, is my job, No. 1, but, B, it’s really necessary on all these utility requests.”

He said he would be taking a close look at the utilities’ justifications for needing more income.

“We’re going to scrutinize it,” he said. “My filing isn’t due until June on this issue. So we’re taking the time now to dig into it, figure it out, and test what they say. I’m not saying that they won’t be able to make a good showing, but I’m going to force them to do that. And if they come up short, we’re going to call it out.”

Tong said he won’t prejudge the case and he understands CNG and SCG are businesses trying to make a profit, but “my job is to protect ratepayers. And if I see well supported, well documented plans for improvements and upgrades that are necessary for a good-functioning natural gas system, then fine.

“But if I see increases that are unwarranted, are more about making money, about making more money, frankly, than about serving ratepayers, then I’m going to have a real problem with them.”

Canavan said, “I welcome the attorney general’s involvement in the case and the review of the material presented in support of the case, as well as the information and testimony that will be provided by the company throughout the balance of the hearing.”

He said Tong issued statements opposing the rate increases “before we even filed the case on Nov. 3. So I would ask all parties involved, do not prejudge our application. Take the time and effort to review the material that has been provided… and will be provided during the balance of this proceeding and then make an informed decision on what is best for not only customers but also the company, balancing both interests so rates meet both needs.”

Taren O’Connor, spokeswoman for PURA, said in an email, “PURA hasn’t issued any formal, substantive guidance on any topics, including infrastructure replacement and staffing levels, to either CNG or SCG through their current rate case. … PURA must base any decisions in this proceeding on the information in front of it; as such, past guidance or determinations may or may not be indicative of future direction or determinations.”

O’Connor said PURA “has previously approved cost recovery and established a specific cost tracker for cost recovery of certain infrastructure replacement” for gas pipes, with a “call to action” issued in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration after “several major natural gas pipeline incidents.”

Since then, the three natural gas utilities (including Yankee Gas) have received “DIMP trackers” that allow them to replace their aging pipes between rate cases, she said.

“Regarding staffing, specific concerns have been raised by PURA in the past,” O’Connor said.

State Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, ranking Republican on the Human Services and Aging committees, released her testimony on the rate increase Friday, saying, “I hear from vulnerable Connecticut families every day. They have been crushed by inflation, burdensome taxes, and the rising cost of living. They already pay far too much for basic utilities. These proposals, if passed, make it even more difficult for struggling Connecticut residents who are already living hand to mouth and barely scraping by.

“Yes, we all understand the need to invest in gas distribution, but I ask you to hear the voices of vulnerable seniors and disabled residents who tell me they simply can’t afford these new potential burdens.”

To submit testimony, email [email protected], including your name and hometown. Put “Docket number 23-11-02” in the subject line.

Hearings will be held at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 17, 2024, at the West Haven Public Library, 300 Elm St.; and at noon Feb. 16, 2024, on Zoom.

PURA will hold hearings next spring and expects to issue its final decision Oct. 18, 2024.

Meanwhile, AARP Connecticut is raising awareness that standard electric rates are expected to be rising Jan. 1 for residential customers.

Eversource customers could see their rates rise to 14.71 cents per kilowatt hour, up from 13.82 cents, while United Illuminating rates will be 17.06 cents, up from 14.33 cents.

“It’s the biggest issue with our members because utilities take up a larger percentage of their fixed income” said AARP Connecticut Senior Advocacy Director John Erlingheuser, in an email.

“Too often, older residents must choose between paying their utility bill and other necessities such as food and medicine. For some, that means dangerously cutting their prescription pills in half or turning down their heat to save money.”

Some customers may be eligible for a Low-Income Discount Rate program, established by PURA, which offers a 10% or 50% discount. Call UI at 800-722-5584 or Eversource at 800-286-2828 to see if you qualify.

The energy company in November noted that customers “can shop, sign up, and save by comparing options offered by third-party suppliers on EnergizeCT.com.”

“We want to make sure customers know they can choose their energy supplier and lock in a lower rate,” said Eversource President of Electric Operations in Connecticut Steve Sullivan, in a November statement. “We always purchase energy at the best possible price available to us, but oftentimes there are third-party suppliers offering even lower rates. These suppliers have more flexible contracts with generators – which allows them to offer more pricing options to customers. Eversource is prohibited from generating electricity which is laid out in state law. Shopping around is one of the easiest ways customers can save on their energy bill, and we hope they’ll take advantage of it.”

The company also noted in Connecticut, “the energy supply price changes twice a year – January 1 and July 1. Eversource does not earn a profit on the cost of electricity. The company only charges customers what it pays generators for producing the power and there is no markup.”