COLUMBIA, SC — Slightly more than a dozen SCE&G ratepayers turned out to protest a proposed electric rate increase during a public hearing Tuesday night in Columbia.
On a damp, chilly night in the Capital City, roughly 75 people filled a room to hear the proceedings at the S.C. Public Service Commission.
The 14 speakers had a variety of protests to lodge against the 1.38 percent, or $32 million increase, the utility asked the commission to approve. Many of the objections were based on economic conditions, though several appealed to the commission for fairness.
If the commission approves the requested rate increase, it would go into effect Jan. 1, boosting the average residential customer’s bill by an average $31 a year. A decision is expected by late December.
“Look out for the little guy,” Stephen Williams, of Columbia, said to the commission.
Williams told the commission he was a family man, trying to raise his kids but struggling to keep up with the cost of energy. One of the few speakers to be questioned by the commissioners, Williams said the bill he received this month was for $278 – low in comparison to his bills in the summer, which soar to $500 a month.
Elaine Cooper of Columbia told the commissioners SCE&G electric rate increases are forcing retirees to choose between purchasing medications and food, or paying for electricity.
“I oppose the rate increase,” said Cooper, whose words precisely echoed those of other speakers during the meeting.
But even as some spoke out against any rate increase, much of the outrage against SCE&G’s latest request to raise rates may have dissipated when the company and several formal opponents reached an agreement last week that significantly lowered the utility’s original increase request.
In June, the company sought a 6.61 percent, or $152 million, electric rate increase that would have cost customers an average of $6.67 more per month on their bills, or about $80 more per year.
Several opponents, including Time Warner Inc., the Department of Navy, Wal-Mart Stores East LP and Sam’s East Inc., along with AARP South Carolina and Frank Knapp Jr., ultimately worked out a deal for the lesser increase, which would cost the average user an additional $2.59 a month on their bills, or just over $31 a year. The negotiations also forced SCE&G to accept a lower, 10.25 percent return on equity agreement in the request, down from the company’s original 10.95 percent request.
Both requests included lower natural gas prices SCE&G has incurred this year as part of an effort to help lower electric rates now, rather than next year as is customary procedure for the company.
If the commission grants the request, SCE&G would not be able to request another electric rate increase before January 2015, the parties said.
“I am not in favor of any raise (in rates),” Martha Robley of Columbia told the commission, citing a reverse trend in electric rates she and other speakers noted is underway elsewhere in the country, notably the Northeast.
“Why aren’t we decreasing rates?” Robley asked the commission.
The public hearing followed two others held around the state beginning last month in Aiken, then in Charleston, where a couple hundred people turned out for the hearing. Public pressure mounted following those hearings, prompting the utility to give ground on its request.
But some, such as Tyrone Murray of Columbia, a retired Department of Corrections worker, say the Cayce-based utility, which serves 669,000 electric customers in the state, still is asking for too much.
Though Murray said he and his family do not put up Christmas lights during the Yuletide season in order to keep down expenses, their electric bill still goes up each December.
“They (SCE&G) just take, take, take and I don’t think it’s fair,” Murray told the commission.