Update: 11/18/20 – The S.C. Public Service Commission today voted to hold two additional public hearings in the first week of January on Dominion Energy’s proposed electric rate hike. The hearings will be held from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 5, and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 7. Participants can either phone in their testimony or attend in person at either hearing. In-person testimony will be held in the PSC hearing room at 101 Executive Center Drive, Columbia; one person at a time will be allowed in the room to testify, and the room will be cleaned between witnesses to comply with public health guidelines in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Witnesses must register by no later than 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, by either emailing the PSC at email@example.com, or calling the agency at 803-896-5133; witnesses will be asked to give their name and a phone number for the PSC to call to receive testimony. The PSC also required Dominion to give notice of the additional hearings to its customers by Dec. 1.
By RICK BRUNDRETT
That was the collective response by the small number of Dominion Energy electric customers who testified at last week’s virtual hearings about whether they supported the utility giant’s proposed nearly 8% rate hike.
It’s unknown whether the seven-member state Public Service Commission, which hosted the hearings, will allow more public comment before it issues its final order by Feb. 15.
As The Nerve revealed last week, a total of only about 200 customers – a fraction of 1% of Dominion’s 753,000 customers in 24 counties – had signed up for the three virtual hearings, and that the PSC could have given the public at least a month longer to prepare for the hearings.
Since that story, The Nerve has learned that based on a PSC request, the state’s main health agency in September issued guidelines to the PSC on how to safely hold in-person public hearings amid the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
During the first virtual hearing last week, the PSC experienced technical problems that prevented some customers from calling into the hearing.
Given all of the hearing issues, The Nerve on Monday afternoon asked the PSC how it planned to allow for more public comment before making a final ruling. In an email response this morning, agency spokesman Rob Bockman said the commission plans to discuss the matter at a business meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday; the agenda item was posted on the agency’s website at 10 a.m. today.
The seven PSC members are elected by state lawmakers and make at least $132,071 annually.
The PSC on Oct. 1 scheduled three public hearings for last week, deciding to hold them virtually over concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak. As The Nerve pointed out last week, the commission allowed Dominion up to Oct. 23 to provide notice of the hearings to its customers – effectively giving them as little as 16 days to sign up and prepare to comment on the utility’s 274-page proposal.
Virginia-based Dominion wants a 7.75% rate hike, which in its application said would generate an additional approximately $178 million. Average residential monthly bills would rise by $9.68, or 7.91%, to $131.99, according to a review by the state Office of Regulatory Staff.
Some Dominion customers who testified last week cited monthly bills ranging up to $600. Those who testified included retirees and others living on fixed incomes; they typically pointed out they can’t afford the proposed rate hike.
“We are in a pandemic; you cannot get blood from a turnip,” a caller told the PSC during the first hearing. “I understand Dominion is a business. … (But) it seems to me like greed to be trying to increase bills when people can barely eat right now.”
During two of the three virtual hearings, Commission chairman Justin Williams and vice chairwoman Florence Belser were present at the same time in the PSC’s hearing room in Columbia, while the other five commissioners – Stephen “Mike” Caston, Carolyn “Carolee” Williams, Thomas Ervin, Headen Thomas and Delton Powers, joined in remotely off-site.
Lawmakers in September elected newcomers Carolee Williams, Caston, Thomas and Powers to the commission.
“Honestly, I’d much rather meet in person, but the conditions that exist today, as everyone has testified to, would make that a little more difficult than in times past,” chairman Williams said during the first public hearing last week.
Agency records show that the PSC at its Sept. 9 business meeting voted to ask the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for recommendations to “limit the exposure of COVID-19 and the best type of venue that would be appropriate to eliminate exposure to the virus, if such venue is possible.”
In a Sept. 23 email to the PSC, DHEC gave the following guidelines for holding in-person public hearings:
- Mask use and social distancing should be encourage and enforced.
- If possible, (clear plastic) barriers should (be) erected between the audience and speaker podiums.
- Shared microphones or podiums should be disinfected with an EPA approved chemical in between uses.
- Plan on a venue for which the normal maximum capacity is twice what the expected attendance is. Capacity should not exceed 50%.
- If there will be more than 250 attendees, please refer to the event exemption process from the (state) Department of Commerce.
- Electronic pre-registration is encouraged rather than traditional sign-in with pens and clip boards as it eliminates surfaces that have to otherwise be disinfected.
The PSC ultimately decided to hold virtual hearings, which, at least on the first night, didn’t go smoothly. Dominion customers could either phone in their testimony or appear via video.
“It’s my understanding that there are some callers that are attempting to call through that are unable to get through,” chairman Williams announced about halfway into the testimony period. “I would ask that you keep calling. Our IT department is working as hard as they can to resolve any and all issues.”
In several tweets from its official Twitter account that night and the following day, the PSC acknowledged the technical problems, and announced that it was extending registration and adding a second phone line for callers.
Chairman Williams also reported during the first hearing that he could not hear several commissioners who were speaking remotely.
Those who testified over the three nights generally were limited to three minutes, but each participant first had to agree to be sworn in, which slowed the process. One caller questioned the need to be placed under oath.
“Why would citizens, ratepayers, have to swear in?” the caller asked during the first hearing. “We’re not going to lie about our power bills.”
Dominion, whose attorneys were allowed to speak – though they weren’t under oath – during last week’s hearings, is scheduled to testify before the PSC in a public hearing on Jan. 5. Under state law, the PSC has until Feb. 15 to issue its order. Dominion said it wants to impose the rate hike starting in March.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
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