CHEYENNE — One of the more illuminating questions illustrating how Wyoming Public Service Commissioners might be viewing Rocky Mountain Power’s requested 29.2% rate hike circled around affordability.
As PSC Chairwoman Mary Throne was questioning Rocky Mountain Power’s Senior Vice President of Regulation and Customer/Community Solutions Joelle Steward during the commission’s recent hearings about the increase, Throne recalled a hot summer day in Rock Springs when the PSC was in town to collect public comments on what has been for many of RMP’s customers a shocking rate hike.
“You may recall it was 97 degrees that day in Rock Springs, with a hot wind blowing,” Throne said. “And that made me think about air conditioning concerns. Obviously in Wyoming, we haven’t faced, and probably won’t face, what has happened in the southwest or Texas.
“But it did cause me some concern that people are going to be facing higher electric bills due to air conditioning.”
Throne’s point was that while Wyoming has some energy assistance programs for heating homes in winter, it doesn’t have many programs that would apply to increased costs at other times of the year. That doesn’t mean those other times are any less important for safety and health, though.
“Has the company ever considered advocating for legislation to allow bill discounts in Wyoming?” Throne asked.
Steward admitted the company has not taken that step.
Rather, Steward said Rocky Mountain Power continues to be “one of the lowest cost providers” in the region and hopes to continue to be.
Into the silence that followed her answer, Steward hastened to add, “But we would certainly be open to that discussion.”
5,000 AARP Comments On Affordability
Throne’s question wouldn’t be the first affordability concern to come to the forefront during the seven-day marathon hearing into a rate hike that includes a 21.9% overall rate hike and a 7.6% temporary increase to recover unexpectedly high fuel costs.
From the first day through the last, affordability was a river running through a hearing thick with complicated modeling strategies, industry jargon and acronyms, and stiff legalese. That made it tough for the general public to follow the bouncing ball on no fewer than 29 witnesses and nearly 400 filed exhibits.
Wyoming AARP Director Sam Shumway, who wasn’t one of the five intervenors in the case, helped cut through some of the clutter with a direct and impassioned plea.
“This case is complicated, and we understand that,” he said. “I think Wyomingites understand that as well. But what they really understand is how this will further strain already strained budgets.”
Everyone in Wyoming is already dealing with hyperinflation, Shumway said, suggesting a 30% rate increase at this time is only going to feed a vicious upward cycle.
“Folks are dealing with how they’re going to pay for increases in gas prices, in the cost of health care, in the cost of medicine, in the cost of groceries, in the cost of property taxes, and are now being faced with a 30% increase in their power bills,” he said. “And maybe more than that, depending on how this impacts businesses, who are going to have to pass that increase on to the consumer.”
Shumway believes Wyomingites might accept the $14.9 million rate increase that WIEC is recommending as fair. Even though most of the people signing a petition the AARP circulated said to just deny any rate increase at all.
“Which we know likely won’t happen,” Shumway said. “But I would ask you to stare carefully and specifically review all of this and hold Rocky Mountain Power to its burden to demonstrate specifically and carefully that this request is just and reasonable.”
All of Wyoming is watching what the commission does, Shumway said.
“This has been a very high-profile case,” he said. “People are paying close attention, and I think this case will have significant impact moving forward. So thank you for your attention to this matter, and on behalf of Wyoming customers, I would ask that you dramatically decrease this rate request.”
The Intervenors Are Far Apart On What’s Fair
Wyoming Industrial Energy Customers and the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate also circled the affordability issue, even if with more formal language.
“The OCA has identified a number of adjustments that we believe need to be considered and that are just and reasonable and in the public interest,” said Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate attorney Shelby Hamilton.
The agency has calculated a $60 million per annum increase, roughly 10% a year, as fair and reasonable.
WIEC, meanwhile, is taking a much harder line, advocating for a $14.9 million increase.
A large portion of those adjustments are realized through selling reserve power — something Rocky Mountain Power officials have testified the company cannot do because of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules that require reliable service.
Nonetheless, WIEC put together a strong case, doing its own modeling with Rocky Mountain Power’s new software Aurora, and crunching its own numbers to come up with a figure that is a staggering $125 million less than the $140.2 million increase Rocky Mountain Power proposed.
“As Wyoming statues state, the commission must ensure that all of the rates paid by electric utility customers must be fair and reasonable,” WIEC attorney Thor Nelson said. “We would also urge the commission to bear in mind that Wyoming law clearly provides that at any hearing regarding the justness and reasonableness of rates, that it is the burden on the utility to prove that the rate increases are just and reasonable.”
Even Students Are Worried
Officials representing organizations in Wyoming weren’t the only ones with compelling testimony on affordability.
University of Wyoming student Maggie Immen turned a few heads during the seven-day hearing when she showed up dressed in an eagle costume.
While she wanted to make a point about eagles and wind towers, her main point was how the rate increase would affect students, as well as the small businesses that she and her fellow students like to shop at in Laramie.
“Electric bills are already to a point that many people can barely afford it,” Immen told commissioners. “Speaking as a college student and on behalf of many other college students, my roommates themselves struggle month to month being full-time college students having to have part-time jobs, taking out loans and everything else, and they’re still barely covering electric bills.”
The constant rate increases are not just imperiling students, Immen said.
“I have spoken to small business owners as well, and they’re at a point where they can barely afford it as well,” she said. “What happens when small businesses can’t afford it? What happens when electric bills and the cost of living become so high that people aren’t coming to (Wyoming) for college any more for the fact that it’s a more affordable life?
“What happens when people go out of business, when people don’t want to stay in Wyoming and support the economy after they graduate from the university? What happens when we stop choosing the university altogether?”
Immen’s comments about affordability echoed 3,000 comments the Public Service Commission had already received in the Rocky Mountain Rate Case before the hearings began.
With AARP’s petition, Wyoming Public Service Commissioners have more than 8,000 comments on the case, almost all of which are pressing the commission to keep affordability foremost in their mind as they decide how high Rocky Mountain Power’s rates may rise.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series unpacking the major issues raised in a seven-day marathon rate increase hearing for Rocky Mountain Power. Next is a closer look at testimony about renewables.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.