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Customers large, small criticize rate hike plan from Duquesne Light

Residents and consumer advocates say their top concern about Duquesne Light’s 17.6 percent rate hike request is that the final amount approved by state regulators is fair.

Customers ranging from giant U.S. Steel Corp. to retirees from Banksville and Robinson say they already are paying too much. Some complained at a public hearing in Green Tree on Monday evening, while others filed complaints with the state Public Utility Commission in Harrisburg after the utility filed to increase power distribution revenue by $76.3 million.

“I’m a middle-class senior citizen,” said Joyce Shlag of Banksville, one of two Duquesne Light customers to make statements at the hearing at the Green Tree municipal center. “I am faced with increases in health care costs, and now Duquesne Light. It’s becoming more and more difficult. I want to be assured that any increase will be justified.”

Connie Schiavo of Robinson said she and her husband, Richard, both retired, face high electricity bills and have been forced to turn off their air conditioning, even though it’s tough for her husband to breath because of emphysema.

“I resent that Duquesne Light wants an increase when everything else is going up. … We won’t be able to use any electricity,” she said.

Their bill rose as high as $320 in August before declining to $212 in September and $85 in October as weather cooled, she said.

The PUC held the hearing on the request, which would increase the average total monthly bill for customers using 600 kWh by $8.23, or 10.6 percent, from $77.77 to $86 per month.

Administrative Law Judge Conrad A. Johnson, who conducted the hearing, will make a recommendation to the five-member commission by mid-February. The PUC voted last month to investigate the request by Duquesne Light, which serves 584,000 customers in most of Allegheny and Beaver counties. It has filed for three distribution rate increases since 1988.

Several companies and organizations have filed to intervene in the case, including U.S. Steel, one of the utility’s largest industrial users; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 29, which represents 900 company employees; Citizens Power, a Pittsburgh consumer advocacy group; and Community ActionAssociation of Pennsylvania, a statewide consumer advocacy group. In addition, the municipalities of Liberty and Whitehall filed protest statements, along with consumers.

In a filing, U.S. Steel said it “is concerned that it may have, since the company’s last distribution rate case, been paying significantly more for distribution service under current rates than was warranted.”

The average commercial customer’s bill would increase to about $900 a month, up $47. The average large-industrial customer would pay $16,680 a month, up $500.

A complaint filed Aug. 15 by the state Office of Consumer Advocate triggered the investigation, which must conclude by May 2. The state Office of Small Business Advocate also filed a complaint.

“Our office filed a complaint to determine whether the rate increase request is fair,” said Amy Hirakis, an attorney for Acting Consumer Advocate Tanya J. McCloskey.

It is typical for large electricity users to file as intervenors in rate cases, McCloskey said. “They have a significant impact on their business, so they are trying to make sure the request is justified and moderated.”

Customers see two charges on their bills. One charge, for generation of power, comes from Duquesne Light or from an alternative energy supplier if the customer has selected one. The other charge from Duquesne Light is for its distribution system that delivers electricity to homes or businesses.

The company filed the request for the distribution increase on Aug. 2, citing plans to upgrade its grid, customer information system, vegetation management and Internet security, as well as the necessary back-office technology for the state-mandated installation of smart meters. It hasn’t updated its system since the 1990s and wants to offer customers better account access online.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or [email protected].


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