Islanders rally against Eversource proposed rate hikes, herbicide use

Representatives from attorney general’s office also attend public hearing to oppose proposed changes.

James Rogers told DPU commissioners, "It makes no sense to harm people trying to create renewable energy." — Stacey Rupolo

Update: A public hearing sponsored by the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) on proposed rate hikes by electricity provider Eversource drew a crowd of about 50 concerned Islanders to the Katharine Cornell Memorial Theater Monday night.

Staff members from Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which has gone on record opposing the rate hikes, as well as attorneys for Eversource, and Craig Hallstrom, president of Massachusetts Electric Operations at Eversource, were also on hand.

Monday night was one of the last DPU statewide public hearings that began in March, in response to the utility company’s Jan. 17 rate-increase request, which will affect 1.4 million customers in Massachusetts.

Eversource’s request, which would take effect in 2018, is aimed at collecting an additional $95 million per year throughout the state — $60 million coming from the Eastern Massachusetts region.

Eversource is requesting a roughly 7 percent increase in delivery rates for residential customers, which the company calculates would cost most ratepayers about $8.45 per month for a home that uses 550 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

In addition to the rate increase, Eversource is also proposing a shift from a usage charge to a fixed charge. Opponents say this could increase bills for low-usage and seasonal customers, and also lessens the incentive for energy efficiency. The filing also proposes to impose a demand charge for new net-metered residential customers interconnected on or after Jan. 1, 2018. Opponents contend this creates a disincentive for renewables, including solar, which are increasingly important to Cape and Islands residents.

Eversource is also proposing to consolidate rate classes, which will result in the termination of seasonal rates.

The Eversource proposal has generated considerable pushback. On Jan. 25, the attorney general’s office submitted a notice of intervention on behalf of Eversource customers, and subsequently allocated $550,000 to fund the fight. Ms. Healey has called on the company to cut profits instead of increasing rates.

“I think it’s a bad deal for residential customers and businesses,” Ms. Healey told the Times ahead of Monday’s DPU hearing. “That’s why my team has been testifying on this rate case. Essentially they’re looking for a blank check on the backs of ratepayers.”

The discourse on Monday’s hourlong hearing took a civil tone, with objections to Eversource’s planned use of herbicides on electric rights of way drawing as much criticism as the proposed rate increase.

Sticker shock

Craig Hallstrom told the assembled the increase is necessary to continue to modernize the grid, to keep improving the reliability of service, and to invest in clean energy like fueling stations for electric cars.

“There’s never a good time for a rate increase,” he said. “This is is the first rate case that NStar electric has filed in over 25 years.” Mr. Hallstrom said the company is one of the largest employers in New England, with more than 8,000 employees, one of the largest property owners in Massachusetts, paying $160 million in property taxes per year, and that the company spends $300 million annually to improve systems and to restore power after large storm events. The proposed increase would be $30 million higher if the company had not merged NStar with Northeast Utilities in 2012, he said.

Mr. Hallstrom also touted the company’s service record. “Over the past 10 years, outages are down 24 percent, while the duration of outages have decreased 16 percent,” he said.

Assistant attorney general Sarah Bresolin Silver said her office has used experts to investigate the proposal, and takes a dim view of the Eversource filing. “Our conclusion is that this proposal is not in the best interest of ratepayers, and we will be working on behalf of the 1.2 million customers to defeat this proposal,” she said.

Ms. Silver said that while Eversource contends it has a $60 million budget shortfall, from 2010 to 2014 the company’s average return to shareholders was greater than 11 percent. “In 2015, the company reported returns of over 15 percent. Last year, no state public utility commission in the country allowed returns that high,” she said.

Kaylea Moore, Island liaison for state representative Dylan Fernandes, testified on behalf of Fernandes and senator Julian Cyr that the cost of living on the Island is “already exorbitantly high” and that many Islanders are already struggling to make ends meet. “Eversource is the first in the nation in profits, 13 percent that they earn off the back of the ratepayers,” she said. “Last year, no public utility commission in the country allowed a return as high as 13 percent.” From 2010 to 2015, Eversource shareholders received a cumulative return of 89 percent, she said.

Ms. Moore also asked the utility provider to take on the maintenance of private utility lines on the Vineyard, which can cost households tens of thousands of dollars.

“I live on a dirt road, and my neighbors and I were surprised to learn we own our lines, which we discovered during a power outage,” Joy Robinson Lynch told DPU commissioners. “During the blizzards we had in February 2015, Nstar came to restore power to the adjoining road, but told us, ‘You’re on your own.’ We begged them to put the electricity on for our elderly neighbor, but they would not. I can’t believe I’m asked to pay more, and asked to pay a delivery charge, when the electricity isn’t delivered.”

Many Islanders expressed concern about the herbicides that Eversource sprays for foliage control around power lines.

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said Eversource has turned a deaf ear to his and other Islanders’ objections. “We keep writing letters and we get no response,” he said.

“Our economy is based on our natural resources; we also rely on our shellfish and fishing industry, and the groundwater that contains the poisons that Eversource sprays is transported directly into Tashmoo Harbor, which is a nursery for fish and shellfish,” Tisbury selectmen chairman Melinda Loberg said.

“Martha’s Vineyard is all about clean water; without clean water we have no economy,” Richard Toole, commissioner from Oak Bluffs on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said.

Rodeo, one of the herbicides used by Eversource, has been a source of controversy due to its active ingredient, glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide.

In 1992, Environmental Protection Agency concluded glyphosate is not a carcinogen. In 2015 the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans. The debate has been ongoing ever since.

The DPU will accept written comments until May 31.They should be addressed to: Mark D. Marini, Secretary, Department of Public Utilities, One South Station, 5th Floor, Boston, MA 02110.

Editor’s note: story was updated to clarify comments made by Ms. Moore.