Seniors, Irrigators Worry About
by Associated Press
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho - An increase in power rates proposed by Rocky Mountain Power is drawing criticism from seniors concerned about adding costs to those on fixed incomes and farmers forced to pay higher power rates this summer.
State regulators are gathering comments on the proposed rate increase for more than 67,000 Rocky Mountain customers across eastern Idaho.
The utility submitted a plan to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission earlier this year to raise rates an average of 10.5 percent. Utility officials say that would generate an extra $18.5 million annually needed to cover higher costs of fuel, labor, buying power on the wholesale market and upkeep of its plants and transmission lines.
The proposed rate structure varies for customers. Residential customers and irrigators would face a 6.7 percent increase. Industrial customers would see double-digit increases and rates for public street lighting would rise by 20.7 percent. There is no rate hike proposed for commercial customers.
If approved, the utility would begin billing at a higher rate in January.
The utilities commission is recommending a smaller increase, an average of 6.28 percent that would generate an estimated $11.2 million.
Rocky Mountain's proposal also would allow the utility to pass along to all customers the costs incurred from collecting from delinquent customers. Rocky Mountain's application says it paid $24,000 to an agency last year to collect more than $88,000 in unpaid bills.
Joe Gallegos, assistant state director for the Idaho Chapter of the AARP, says the higher rates and fees will only hurt those who can least afford it.
"We are worried that it could have a disproportionate effect on people of low income and people on fixed incomes," Gallegos told the Post-Register.
A group that represents eastern Idaho irrigators who use electricity to run groundwater pumps says the increase comes at a bad time, on the heels of losing the Bonneville Power Administration credit from monthly statements.
In May, a federal appeals court ruled that Bonneville had overstepped its authority with the subsidy to reduce electricity rates for residential and small farm customers of private utilities.
The residential exchange program was established by Congress with the Northwest Power Act in 1980. It allowed private utilities to swap higher-cost power they generate for lower-cost hydropower generated by Bonneville, the federal power marketing agency based in Portland, Ore., that oversees hydroelectric production at 31 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, the BPA began suspending payment of $28 million a month in residential exchange benefits.
Irrigators, especially those with deep wells, are some of Rocky Mountain's biggest customers, and the loss of the monthly credit led to significantly higher power bills, said Eric Olson, an attorney for the Idaho Irrigation Pumpers Association.
Olson says irrigators deserve some relief and has suggested the utility create a new program that gives irrigators the option of earning credits for turning off their pumps during peak usage in the summer.
"It would allow farmers, through their own planning, to participate or not," he said. "It's not a subsidy we're asking for."
Rocky Mountain's last rate increase was approved in 2005, but higher operating costs have created a need for more revenue, utility officials say. Electricity in the West is still a bargain, cheaper than it was 20 years ago if costs are adjusted for inflation, said Margaret Oler, Rocky Mountain spokeswoman in Idaho.
But "people are using more electricity, and that drives up the cost," Oler said. "Demand is up, and the company has made large investments in infrastructure."
The commission is hosting two public hearings on the request this week: Tuesday in Rigby and Thursday in Grace.
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