HARTFORD – The sparring over United Illuminating’s request for a rate hike, and the state energy regulator’s expected plans to reject it, has been unusually tense even for the high-stakes world of utility regulation.
On the one side, state lawmakers and officials criticized the company for going too far in its attempts to sway public opinion ahead of a final decision on the requested rate increase on Friday.
Employees of the company, which serves about 342,000 electric customers in 17 municipalities in Fairfield and New Haven counties, have rallied outside a hearing by PURA and have written letters in support of the company since the state regulator released a draft decision suggesting that it would allow only a $2 million rate increase instead of the $130 million the company requested.
And the company has sought media coverage and submitted editorials to press a message that investors had taken note of the state’s approach under PURA Chair Marissa Gillett, and that rejecting the hike would prevent needed investment in the state energy infrastructure.
At a news conference on Tuesday called to criticize the company’s public campaigning, Attorney General William Tong said the draft decision was what “performance-based rate making” looks like. Tong said that United Illuminating was being held accountable for its performance.
Tong said that it’s been clear, for example, since the Spanish multinational Iberdrola took over UI-parent Avangrid in 2015 that the company needed to meet its obligation to clean up English Station, an abandoned power plant in New Haven. UI hasn’t met its obligations, and the company is being penalized for it, he said.
“If you don’t like that penalty, there’s a simple solution: Do what you said you were going to do,” Tong said. “Remediate English Station and the penalty goes away.”
While lawmakers from the Energy and Technology Committee looked to refute claims that laws passed this year and in 2020 had chilled investment, they mainly took issue with the company’s approach.
“One rate case should not distract us from our shared interest and shared responsibilities,” State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said. “I call on all parties to cut it out. Just stop the sniping. It is not productive for all of us. Leave the heated rhetoric for the politicians who know how to use it.”
United Illuminating employees wearing company shirts rallied outside PURA during the hearing to show opposition to the draft decision, and 56 public comments were filed including many by UI employees.
Moses Rams, president of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 470-1, wrote that the workers who attended the rally did so out of fear for that the expected decision by PURA would make it harder for the company to train and recruit new line workers, making the job more difficult and more dangerous.
Tong said the effort from UI feels more aggressive than lobbying efforts in the past, and the “attacks” on PURA and the process feel more pointed and directed at Gillett.
“We hear it all, and it sort of misses the point,” Tong said. “The point is that they had a burden to carry before PURA to prove that they should get $131 million more. They failed. Period. End of story.”
State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, co-chair of the energy committee, said he didn’t know of another case where there has been a rally outside PURA during oral arguments. The letters to PURA and letters to the editor are all “fair game,” he said, but the efforts are misplaced should instead be trying to convince state regulators, not the public.
“I think there’s a general sense in the utility world that this could become a cascading event where people want utilities to be held accountable,” Needleman said. “And the battle that’s being waged is outside the court of law where it should be waged.”
In a statement to CT Examiner, UI President Frank Reynolds said there is “a certain irony” in holding a press conference to complain that the company was trying to influence the decision with a public relations campaign waged outside the “proper channels.”
“I will continue to support our employees and partners that choose to raise their voice and share their concerns about this rate case and its impact on the future of our company,” Reynolds said. “They deserve a platform and the opportunity to be heard as much as any elected official – and if our regulatory officials and lawmakers chose to listen to their concerns, we might just make progress toward a reasonable, responsible outcome.”
While the press conference included both Democratic leaders on the committee — Needleman, Steinberg — as well as the ranking Senate Republican, State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, the message wasn’t entirely shared across party lines.
State Rep. Bill Buckbee, R-New Milford – the ranking House Republican on the energy committee, and the lone member of the committee’s leadership who didn’t attend the press conference – said in a statement after that he was concerned that the “confusing tone” of the press conference would make it harder to work with the utilities to address pressing energy issues.
State House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said in a statement that he thought it “ironic if not disturbing” that leaders of the Energy Committee, Tong and Consumer Counsel Claire Coleman would hold a press conference criticizing United Illuminating for speaking publicly about the impact the decision would have on its operations.
Decarbonizing the electric grid and phasing out gas-powered cars would require “significant planning and massive financial investment” from the utilities, Candelora said, and hostility toward them won’t serve Connecticut in the long run.
“If legislators and regulators fail to find a way to work with these companies, I fear the effort to overcome Connecticut’s energy-related challenges will remain stuck in neutral and Democrats’ policy goals will collapse under their own weight,” Candelora said.
PURA Chair Marissa Gillett told UI representatives during the hearing earlier this month that she was concerned the company was “attempting to persuade or influence the authority outside of the proper administrative process” by having employees and contractors write letters to PURA and op-eds opposing the decision.
“The [large number of] comments and op-eds that are objecting to the draft decision are primarily from UI employees, contractors, business associates, and they’ve become notable for one reason, in that they contain some very remarkably similar talking points,” Gillett said.
Itai Vardi, a researcher with Energy and Policy Institute – a self-described “watchdog” group aiming to counter misinformation by the fossil fuel industry – found that the metadata on two of the written comments identified the author as Sarah Wall, the UI Communications Manager and a registered lobbyist for the company.
And language from those letters was repeated in other comments submitted by employees of the comapny.
The institute also identified several charitable organizations that receive financial support from UI that also wrote comments to PURA supporting the company, including New Haven Promise, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and Long Wharf Theatre.
UI attorney Daniel Venora declined to answer questions by Gillett asking whether the company drafted or circulated talking points, replying only that they “see comments all the time filed at PURA that seem to be consistent.”
“Just because some of these public comments have come from UI employees, who have a right to put in public comment, I don’t think the situation is any different than what you would normally encounter during a regulatory process,” Venora told Gillett at the hearing.
UI did not answer whether Wall wrote boilerplate language or talking points for employees, when asked by CT Examiner. Instead, Avangrid spokesperson Craig Gilvarg replied in a statement that the company supports the efforts of its employees to “participate in this important process, and make their voice heard on these issues that are critical to their ability to perform their jobs safely and deliver reliable power to our valued customers and communities.”