So, the South Carolina Public Service Commission invited Dominion Energy customers to tee off on the utility’s proposed rate increase last week.
But they did it by conference call because, pandemic. It went even worse than you might expect.
A Columbia man called in on the first of three nights’ worth of hearings to point out Dominion’s rates are already 10% higher than the state average — and 30% higher than the national.
A salient point, for which he had documentation.
But his message didn’t get through. In a letter to the PSC, he later said he couldn’t hear some of the commissioners’ questions, then lawyers for the utility interrupted to claim he hadn’t followed “procedure.”
Finally, his call was muted, and he couldn’t even hail the operator. He called back and asked to respond. His request was denied.
Dozens of people experienced similar headaches — there were dropped calls, garbled calls. Commissioners had to have their colleagues’ statements read back to them. It was a virtual circus.
Luckily, on the final night of the hearing, a parade of state senators called in … and their messages came through loud and clear.
“What is Dominion doing that’s worth $16 a month more than Duke (Energy)?” Sen. Shane Massey asked.
Sen. Mia McLeod suggested the utility withdraw the entire request because its officers can’t call themselves good corporate citizens if, during a global pandemic, “they want to take advantage of the ratepayers that are the backbone of … the state’s economy.”
Exactly. This is a horrible time to raise rates, particularly by nearly 8%. Dominion officials couldn’t look more like the heartless stereotype of a villain if they were caught twirling their mustaches on a Zoom call.
That’s why the Public Service Commission owes it to Dominion’s 720,000-plus South Carolina customers to try this again.
As the senators pointed out, Dominion bought SCANA, the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas, on the heels of the V.C. Summer nuclear fiasco — a disaster customers of the monopoly utility will be paying off for another 18 years. Which is criminal in itself.
SCE&G was making so much bank by charging people in advance for power plants it didn’t build that, for years, it didn’t bother with a general rate increase. So Dominion can now claim it’s justified in asking for an overdue — and overly large — one now.
In fact, that was apparently one of SCANA’s selling points for Dominion.
It’s up to the PSC to determine whether a rate increase is necessary, and some of Dominion’s evidence is laughable. As Massey points out, utility officials want to charge customers for the V.C. Summer transmission lines. Seeing as they didn’t build the plants, those aren’t really necessary. Even if they are using them, people are already paying for them as part of the nuclear debt.
The PSC is also supposed to consider public comments, which it usually does in person. Commissioners opted for conference calls because of the coronavirus, which is understandable — although the state Department of Health and Environmental Control OK’d socially distanced, in-person hearings.
Unfortunately, the PSC’s decision to go with conference calls inadvertently disenfranchised a lot of folks. By curbing complaints, the calls worked to Dominion’s benefit. That’s not to say it was done on purpose, or to assign blame — it is what it is.
But the “public” hearings didn’t give nearly enough people a chance to make their case.
Usually, public hearings are much closer to a utility’s “merits hearing” — when the company and state regulators get to make their arguments for and against a rate hike. And that’s not until Jan. 5.
The holidays probably played a role in the decision, but still. The good news is that leaves time to fix this.
The obvious solution is to have a round of in-person public hearings around the state, as the PSC normally does. Assuming health precautions are taken, there’s no reason not to.
It would give the folks who usually show up for such hearings a less technically challenging way to participate. And there are real issues at stake — specifically, even higher monthly electric bills.
Commissioners need to remember, public service isn’t just part of their jobs — it’s in their title.
So, make it happen.