Legislator: RMP rate increase ‘outrageous attempt to further distress our residents’

Residents and legislators recently spoke out against two Rocky Mountain Power rate increases that, if approved, would total a nearly-30% increase. (COURTESY PHOTO)

The Wyoming Public Service Commission (WPSC) held a public comment hearing in Casper on Thursday, Aug. 24, to hear comments from Wyomingites and legislators concerning a pair of proposed rate increases by Rocky Mountain Power. The event took place at the Thyra Thomson State Office Building and used a separate room for overflow participants.

An 8% interim increase already went into effect in August, though officials and residents are asking the WPSC to reverse that increase. RMP has also proposed an additional increase of nearly 20% that, if approved, will be effective Jan. 1, 2024.

The attorney on the case, Ivan Williams, who is senior counsel for the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate, ran the hearing and invited elected officials to speak. Jon Conrad, representative for House District 19 and Uinta County said, “I do not believe there is a firewall that protects the customers of Wyoming and our residents from liability.”

Conrad explained that Wyoming accrues costs from outside of the state, paying 15% of any development within the multi-state process area. He gave examples of this, mentioning two nuclear construction projects in Utah that eliminated coal-powered plants.

“Wyoming is paying for the demise of coal generation and that burden rests on our residents. This is the wrong business model,” Conrad said. “This is an outrageous attempt to further distress our residents and ultimately require them to make decisions which will impact negatively their ability to make ends meet. Electricity is not a discretionary spending issue; it is a pocketbook issue.” 

Conrad suggested the commission reject the rate increase and go back to the 70/30 cost share of the energy-cost allowance mechanism, rather than eliminating it as proposed. 

After hours of testimony, the committee decided several bills will need to be considered and more meetings are likely to be scheduled.

Tony Locke, resident of Natrona County and representative of House District 35, said the utility request for a rate increase is not just and will have an impact on Wyoming families.

“The trickle down from this will leave residents with a double whammy,” Locke said. “The first comes directly to their electricity bills. The second will come when businesses pass on their increased costs to consumers.”

He said the commission should focus on the public’s interest and keep the desire of the utility company secondary.

Other legislators commented, including Sen. Bob Ide of District 29, who said he would keep his comments brief so more of the public could comment.

“When you come to the negotiating table with a big monopoly, you want the best pit bulls on your team to negotiate a contract,” he said.

Ide asked the comission to provide a contract of the negotiations with the utility company because he wants to know who was on the front lines fighting for the public.

The commission responded, saying there will be no negotiations but there will be an evidentiary hearing on Oct. 25, when the utility company will present witnesses.

State Sen. Troy McKeown (SD-24) said, “I made the trek down here because Rocky Mountain Power provides over 50% of the electricity across the state and this increase would be a quadruple tax punishment. The utility company reaches into the consumer pockets and sends money back as subsidies to the state. Strike number two is they then tax the subsidies, so you are now being taxed on a tax. Does that seem fair?”

He warned about the hidden danger of the increased cost of government services.

McKeown asked the commission to weigh whether it is more important to keep the economy going and take care of constituents or making sure a power company makes more money. He also brought up the question, “What was allowed for obsolescence of equipment on Rocky Mountain Power’s tax rates? I am told that is private information, but I think people deserve to know the tax breaks a utility company gets under obsolescence.” 

Rep. Clark Stith (HD-48), a resident of Rock Springs, said residents in his district would be hurt by the rate increase. He thanked others in the legislature for standing together in opposition to the utility increase.

“Factors to consider in this case is the evidence: Has the utility company shown they have higher costs?” Stith asked.

He said the commission should consider the return on equity that Rocky Mountain Power is requesting.

“The message from Rocky Mountain Power appears to be … costs go up and they pass that on to rate payers,” Stith said. “Implied in that is they are running a risk-free business.”   

After hearing elected officials, Williams, who officiated the hearing, said, “This type of testimony is important, as evidenced by the fact that we are here. This is a complex and legal process. All evidence is considered by the commission.”

He assured that the commission will give the evidence the weight it is due.

“All of that information weighs into the balance,” Williams said.

Public comments included concerns about higher property taxes in addition to higher utility rates. Other concerns took account of seniors and those on fixed income who are struggling to make ends meet with increased rates. The loss of local business due to increased rates was also a topic of public comment.

Future public comment sessions are scheduled for Sept. 18, in Riverton, and an undetermined date in Laramie.

Rocky Mountain Power Director of Communications Tiffany Erickson said, “We take our obligation to meet the needs of our customers seriously, and we understand that a price increase is never welcome news. These increases are almost entirely due to the significant spike in the cost of natural gas and coal for our thermal power plants, together with the cost of power purchased on the regional wholesale market.”

According to Erickson, since 2021, natural gas fuel prices have risen 89%; the company’s coal fuel prices have increased 38%; while open market power costs have increased 199%.

“The company doesn’t make a profit on these costs,” Erickson said, “and, because they occur in commodity markets, they are beyond the company’s reasonable control.”

Rocky Mountain Power states the company is actively managing their system to offset costs and reduce impacts to customers.

“The proposed rate increase is lower than the nationwide spike in energy prices because of our continued efforts, including the integration of low-cost renewables in our diverse resource portfolio and our participation in innovative markets with other energy producers that allow us to buy energy at the lowest possible price available,” Erickson said.

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