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Editorial: DPU must hear concerns of area residents

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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Twice in recent weeks, local residents and legislators have sent a message to the state Department of Public Utilities, which regulates the region’s electricity and natural gas companies. The message: please don’t let Eversource and Berkshire Gas hurt the region’s residents and businesses.

More than 125 people attended a state Department of Public Utilities hearing in the Greenfield Middle School last month to complain about the electric utility’s requested 10 percent residential rate increase that would add $11.64 per month to the average 550-kilowatt hour bill for western Massachusetts customers, while at the same time provide the utility’s shareholders with a 10.5 percent guaranteed rate of return.

Conway Select Board member Robert Armstrong described the utility’s “heroic” response in the aftermath of a February tornado that knocked out power in his town, but he nonetheless noted the utility is asking western Massachusetts customers to pay $162 more annually while asking only $50 more from customers to the east.

“This disparity is unfair and contributes to the economic difficulties in our region,” he observed.

This is a variation on the theme sounded by Attorney General Maura Healey, who has said the proposal is excessive and puts the interests of shareholders over the interests of customers.

“When so many customers today are struggling to make ends meet and businesses are trying to lower their energy costs to maintain and grow jobs, it is time to return money to customers, not to raise their rates,” she said.

Eversource critics told the DPU that businesses would be forced to pass on added electricity costs to customers, including many who cannot afford it, and nonprofit organizations that would have to turn to donors in the community to recover their added costs — all so that shareholders could be guaranteed what Healey has termed “unreasonably high” profits.

Eversource, for its part, has said the change in its distribution rate is being requested to expand its commitment to reliability and clean energy technologies, and is part of a “longer-term plan” intended to deliver the benefits of a “modernized grid” to its customers. It also contends that solar users who tie into the grid should pay something toward the costs of maintaining the grid they rely on for backup.

Meanwhile, several area legislators have complained to the DPU that the continuing moratorium by the Berkshire Gas Co. on new hookups is hurting economic development in the region.

The moratorium has been in place since December 2014, when the company announced its supply and distribution system was near capacity. At the time, it said it needed the proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline through western Massachusetts to solve its supply problem. But that project was withdrawn in the face of determined local opposition, and Berkshire Gas has yet to put in place an alternative. It’s starting to feel like we are being punished for fighting the pipeline.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and state Reps. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and Paul Mark, D-Peru, filed a brief with the DPU on the long-range plans of Berkshire Gas.

The legislators fear that the ongoing Berkshire Gas moratorium is hindering economic development and hurting the quality of life of residents in the region. The brief states: “Due to the moratorium, businesses are not choosing to locate or expand in the Eastern Division.”

The brief says that a continued and open-ended moratorium is unacceptable and asks regulators to quickly identify a way to end the moratorium as soon as possible.

It encourages the DPU to consider testimony about possible demand and supply solutions to the moratorium such as expanding energy efficiency programs.

Western Massachusetts counties already are at a disadvantage compared to their eastern counterparts. A recent study shows that the rural towns of Franklin County are poorer and grayer than rural towns orbiting the Boston metropolitan area. The state should be helping us catch up to the more prosperous eastern towns, not holding us back.

Is the DPU listening? We sure hope so.