Local citizens protest energy rate increase

The Fight the Hike Coalition will hold a rally in Hartford today to demand a moratorium on the increasing price of electricity.

The rally — which will include Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 as a keynote speaker — comes after the Department of Public Utilities Control gave its approval last month to a three-phase increase in United Illuminating’s residential electricity rates. The hike is expected to culminate by July 1 with a 50 percent overall increase compared to 2006 rates. UI officials attribute the latest rise in rates to a significant swelling in the market price of electricity, but rally organizers said consumers across the state are struggling to pay increasingly costly electricity bills and that current measures to aid them are inadequate.

Wendy Hamilton, a New Haven resident and organizer of the rally, said the price of electricity in Connecticut — which is now the highest in the United States — has risen out of control since the deregulation of the market and has left many working and middle-class households struggling to pay their monthly bills.

“Most people are all squeezed out by the high charges,” she said. “They said deregulation was going to give us competition and drive prices down … [but] it’s killing everybody.”

A UI spokesperson said the company is sensitive to the harsh situation for customers and that UI hopes to see a reduction in prices when it next bids for electricity supplies in May. But he said the state legislature currently reduces competition through a large array of restrictions on power-generating firms, thereby raising princes. The price of electricity would be significantly lower, he said, if the state allowed electricity suppliers and distributors to negotiate long-term contracts instead of the current six-month contracts, which create instability that many suppliers cannot afford.

“The last round of contracts had the most stringent guidelines we ever faced,” he said. “That had an impact on the number [of bidders], as we could no longer go out and secure contracts for a three-year period. It is discouraging many small electricity generators from bidding in the state’s market.”

He also said the higher cost of fossil fuels was a factor in the increase.

The state legislature deregulated the market for electricity generation in 1998. While the firms which generate electricity can now set their own price, any increase in residential and consumer prices charged by electricity suppliers — such as UI, which has to buy electricity from the generators — must first receive the approval of the DPUC.

But Hamilton said the DPUC has undermined the welfare of many state residents because it has allowed UI to pass on the higher cost of supply to its residential and business customers.

Many local residents said they have had to change their daily habits to conserve energy and lower their bills.

“[The rate increases] are really back-breaking, especially for people like me who are on a fixed income,” Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said. “What I started to do, which I never did before, is to turn off all the lights.”

Marie Notarino, a resident of the town of Branford, said she has been reducing her consumption of electricity and gas but has found herself paying a surcharge for under-usage every month.

“If I lower my thermostat to 62, they are charging me 20 percent for under-usage,” she said.

Many state legislators and administration officials have called for a stop to price increases and significant reform to the state’s deregulated market. Governor M. Jodi Rell said in a press release last month that price hikes were harming economic growth, and she called on the DPUC to defer the rate increases.

The DPUC approved UI’s phased-in rate increase by a 3-2 majority on Dec. 19. Residential electricity rates rose 24.9 percent on Jan. 1 as part of the first of three installments scheduled this year.

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