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McMaster wants utility to stop vying for rate hike on bills

November 24, 2020 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is calling on Dominion Energy to abandon a request to raise customers’ power bills for an additional $178 million annual profit amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the utility Tuesday, the governor highlighted the economic difficulties produced by the pandemic for people and businesses, on top of its public health threats. Dominion, with a parent company valued at more than $60 billion, should stop pursuing the 7.7% rate increase during the current period of economic uncertainty, the governor wrote.

“A sizable rate increase at this difficult time would impose an unexpected and untenable burden on many South Carolinians,” McMaster wrote.

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If the company doesn’t withdraw its application or try to pause proceedings as the pandemic continues, McMaster will ask regulators with the Public Service Commission to reject the request, he wrote.

In a statement from Dominion spokesperson Rhonda O’Banion, the company did not commit to dropping its proposal.

“We recognize that there may never be an ideal time to request a rate review,” the statement reads. “We have been helping our customers who are struggling financially through the pandemic. Our customers also count on us to keep the electricity flowing safely and reliably, and we made our filing to continue to meet this obligation.”

“We welcome the opportunity to work with parties for the purpose of identifying contested issues on which we may find agreement as well as discussing appropriate compromises.”

If the suggested rate increases go into effect next year, customers’ bills could increase by $9.68 per month. The current ratepayer’s average monthly bill is $122.31.

The Virginia-based utility announced its plan, which could affect 753,000 customers in the state, in August. The rate increases would go toward eight years’ worth of routine operation and maintenance expenses, the company said. Customers last saw a rate increase in 2013.

It is the first time Dominion has asked for increased rates since buying the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas in 2019, after SCE&G nixed a nuclear reactor construction project at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station that never generated power and left the utility billions of dollars in debt.

Also Tuesday, the Office of Regulatory Staff, the state’s utility watchdog, released a counterproposal for regulators. The agency suggested a rate increase that would only raise customers’ bills by one cent per month instead.

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Ratepayers and some state lawmakers who called into a series of virtual meetings held by the Public Service Commission earlier this month testified to how the increase could further squeeze elderly South Carolinians and those struggling with unemployment, news outlets reported.

Regulators have scheduled two more public night hearings in January, when they are set to consider the case.

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Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.