SCE&G customers sound off on proposed rate hike
One by one they came forward Monday to blast South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.’s plans for another rate hike.
The seven-member S.C. Public Service Commission will hold two more public hearings on S.C. Electric & Gas Co.’s proposed overall 6.61 percent rate hike request. They will be at 2 p.m. Nov. 26 and 6 p.m. Nov. 27 at 101 Executive Center Drive in Columbia.
After receiving sworn testimony during the formal hearing in Columbia, commissioners will then deliberate and make a decision on the rate hike by Dec. 29. Whatever amount, if any, they approve will take effect in January.
The retiree from Charleston, the executive from Awendaw, the real estate agent from Ridgeville — all came with one mission in mind: to prod the state Public Service Commission to pull the plug on SCE&G’s request for a surge in electric rates.
They were among about two dozen people in a room of about 150 to sound off against the Cayce-based utility’s latest proposed spike in rates — one that will add $6.67 a month to a residential customer’s bill using 1,000 kilowatts a month.
The bill for such a customer currently sits at $131.78 a month, more than $30 higher than it was five years ago after 11 base rate increases and four upward fuel adjustments granted to the power provider.
If approved, the latest overall 6.61 percent increase would be the 12th in five years and take effect in January for the investor-owned utility’s 668,000 electric customers in 24 counties across the state.
Eleanor Horres of Mount Pleasant likened the continuous rate hikes, which come in small chunks averaging about 2 percent over the last five years, to cutting off a finger.
“It doesn’t make it hurt any less,” she told the seven-member S.C. Public Service Commission during a hearing in Charleston. “The cost of everything is going up, and my income is going down. They need to find out where to cut costs. This is not a healthy economy.”
She urged SCE&G to help people with alternative energy sources, such as solar panels.
“I’m sickened by the history of SCE&G’s rate hike requests,” said Donald Eaton of Mount Pleasant.
He urged the commission not only to deny the current rate hike request but also to revoke the previous spikes in energy costs awarded to the company.
Ruth Rambo of Charleston said the amount of money she will be paying more each month for electricity means she might not be able to afford the senior-citizen discounted ticket at the movie theater.
“Before we place the entire burden on the bill-payer, the customer, can we make sure SCE&G has made every effort to keep costs under control?” she said. “I don’t believe that condition has been met.”
She also questioned the company’s decision-making process that continuously results in requests for rate hikes.
“It appears the company is not well-managed,” Rambo said.
Charlyne Raih of Isle of Palms handed commissioners a comparative analysis of her electric bills and said her rates rose nearly 14 percent this year over last year.
“I began to wonder why I’m paying more even though I’m using less,” said Raih, who is worried about losing her home because her household income has been cut in half due to the recession. “I’m 58 years old, and I have never paid a bill late until the past 24 months of my life.”
She asked the commission to consider making the weather normalization that SCE&G uses on bills optional instead of mandatory because she doesn’t believe it benefits anyone but the utility. The program is designed to reduce the billing spikes associated with abnormal weather.
“Customers are hurting,” said Neal Hancock of Ridgeville. “SCE&G needs to manage themselves and suck it up.
“Treating your customers like a bank is wrong. Most of the people here have had to do more with less. They should, too.”
Grant Reeves of Awendaw, an executive with The InterTech Group, a North Charleston-based international conglomerate of companies that invest in utilities as part of its business, called the rate hike proposal “an unjustified burden” on SCE&G’s customers and a threat to businesses operating in the utility’s service territory.
“SCE&G operates in an alternative universe,” Reeves said.
He said the company’s “excessive spending and palatial offices” have to be brought under control.
“There is waste in the system, and it must be purged. This commission can send a clear signal that the party is over.”
Lynda Taylor of Ridgeville pointed out to the commission that they consistently grant SCE&G’s rate hike request, although usually by a smaller amount.
“You shoot for the moon and then hit the barn door every time,” she said. “Sometimes as an elected or appointed authority, we begin to lose sight of the people we really have to consider. You become part of them. Become part of the people. Give us some consideration.”
Taking it in
Watching it all unfold from the back of the room was Keller Kissam, SCE&G’s president of retail operations. He sympathized with the customers but said the increase is necessary.
“It’s tough to sit and listen to,” Kissam said. “We empathize with our customers. There is never a good time for a rate case.”
He said the rate hike will help the utility maintain reliability on the power grid and comply with federal mandates.
The rate hike request by the subsidiary of Scana Corp. comes just over two years after the power provider sought a nearly 10 percent rate hike that was later slashed in half after howls of protest from rate payers.
SCE&G is the largest power provider in the Charleston area. About half its 668,000 electric customers live in Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties.
At the same time, the company is asking commissioners to reduce the fuel portion of electric rates to reflect declining cost of natural gas to produce electricity. The company does not profit from fuel cost adjustments.
Those adjustments usually occur in May, but SCE&G is requesting the reduction now to lessen the impact of the base rate increase, utility spokesman Eric Boomhower said.
The latest proposed increase would be in addition to the annual rate hikes averaging 2.36 percent through 2019 to pay for the $10 billion construction costs of two new nuclear units SCE&G is building north of Columbia. The project is in conjunction with state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which owns 45 percent of the new nuclear units.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.