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GOSHEN -- To Glenn Gilbert, utilities manager and sustainability coordinator at Goshen College, the problem is not NIPSCO seeking to increase electric rates; rather, the price of energy is too low.
Residential and industrial consumers currently have little incentive to click off the lights, turn up the air conditioner thermostat and conserve electricity, which in Northern Indiana is produced by coal-powered plants.
"Nobody likes having to pay more for anything but I like this idea of paying true costs," Gilbert said. "I like the idea of paying more so we don't destroy the environment."
However, the potential economic hardships brought by higher electric bills most likely will be the primary concern raised by customers of Northern Indiana Public Service Co. at a pair of public field hearings scheduled for Wednesday.
During the March hearing in Gary, fear and anger over having to pay more at a time when many households have less erupted in the crowded auditorium and, in part, prompted the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to hold additional public forums.
NIPSCO filed a petition to raise base electric rates in June 2008 and is now asking for an overall increase of 9.8 percent. Under the proposal, residential consumers would see their bills climb an average of $12.76 per month.
Gilbert noted he was not interested in giving a utility more money but he would like the destructive coal-mining methods in Appalachia and pollution from coal-burning generators stopped. The commitment to conservation and to investment in alternative energy sources could be strengthened if wallets have to be opened wider.
Consumers are paying a high price for electricity, Gilbert said. They are just not seeing that cost on their utility bills.
Meeting environmental standards for air and water quality are among the reasons NIPSCO listed for raising its rates. Other costs the company said it was trying to recover included generating, transmitting and delivering electricity along with maintaining existing facilities and building new ones.
After reviewing NIPSCO's petition, the Indiana Office of the Utility Consumer Counselor filed a recommendation that the state should not only deny the utility's request for an $85.7 million increase but also impose a revenue reduction of $135.2 million.
NIPSCO filed a rebuttal June 26, disputing the Counselor's calculations among other things. Both sides will be able to present their arguments by giving testimony and cross-examining witnesses when the IURC convenes the evidentiary hearing in Indianapolis on July 27.
Kerwin Olson, program director at Citizens Action Coalition, agreed that consumers have an obligation to save energy but he countered NIPSCO is the only electric provider available to residents in its coverage area, giving the utility a monopoly. Consequently, it should be required to supply energy to consumers at the lowest rate possible.
Electricity enables residential customers to have fresh food, cold water and comfortable homes, Olson explained. When consumers are already making choices between paying for groceries, medical care and rent, NIPSCO should not be raising rates. Electricity is a necessity, not a luxury, Olson said.
If the IURC does approve a rate increase, Roger Burger, owner of Inventure Electronics, a company that designs and make electronic products, said the impact will lessen over time, namely as consumers replace their worn-out appliances with more energy-efficient ones. Still, for residential customers the reward for buying an energy-saving washer and dryer could be not that their electricity bills decline but that they do not rise as much.
"As you upgrade, there's an efficiency you gain," Burger said, "but you give with one hand and you take with another."
TWO MORE CHANCES TO SPEAK OUT ON NIPSCO RATE INCREASE
NIPSCO customers will have two more chances to voice their support of or opposition to a proposed electric rate increase.
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission will have a pair of public field hearings Wednesday at the Orak Shrine Center, 3848 N. Frontage Road, Michigan City.
The first session will be from 1:30 to 4 p.m. and the second will begin at 6 p.m. Central time.
At 1 p.m., the Indiana Office of the Utility Consumer Counselor will conduct an informational meeting to discuss the regulatory process and describe the field hearing procedures.
Oral and written comments presented during the hearing will become part of the evidentiary record considered by the IURC in reaching its final decision.
Customers also can submit written comments directly to the OUCC by:
Mail: Consumer Services Staff
Indiana Office of the Utility Consumer Counselor
115 W. Washington St., Suite 1500 South
Indianapolis, IN 46204
Fax: (317) 232-5923