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Avista electric rate request is a lightning rod

Sat., Oct. 22, 2005

More than 350 people had submitted comments to Washington regulators by the close-of-business deadline Friday, saying they don’t want Avista Utilities to raise electric rates as much as the Spokane energy company has proposed.

“They’re all against it. That’s a fairly high number. I don’t remember anything that high recently,” said Marilyn Meehan, spokeswoman for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. “That’s quite a bit higher than anything else we’ve got.”

Puget Sound Energy, another investor-owned utility regulated by the commission, has proposed raising electric rates by 4.4 percent, a request that has garnered 48 customer comments, Meehan said.

Avista Utilities Vice President Kelly Norwood said he believes the company’s simultaneous request to raise natural gas rates by 24 percent in Washington and Idaho is driving increased concern. The natural gas increase would pass through to customers the higher cost the company is paying for the commodity, without boosting Avista’s profit.

“We pay attention to the comments we get from our customers,” Norwood said. That’s why the company has worked to increase the amount of money contributed to low-income rate assistance programs, he said. The company also promoted legislation that created a state rate assistance program, he said.

Avista has proposed raising electric rates by an average of 7.7 percent, which would be 9 percent increase for residential and small-business customers. That boost would tack an extra $5.22 on the average customer’s monthly bill. Avista also has proposed that natural gas rates rise by less than 1 percent and that its base monthly charge increase from $5 to $5.50.

The company has asked that the new rates take effect Jan. 1. The commission is expected to make a decision in December.

Of the 350 comments, 113 came from a National Church Residence housing complex in the Spokane Valley that serves disabled and low-income senior citizens. In a two-page letter to the commission, the residents protested the rate increase, saying they can’t afford all the rising costs of living, including gas, food, medicine and other necessities.

“This proposed utility increase would be an additional hardship on most low-income and disabled senior citizens,” the petition reads. Signers included their apartment numbers and ages, which range from 52 to 92.

The petition also notes that two other similar housing complexes, located within two miles, are serviced by Vera Water and Power, and have “considerably lower” rates. Similar to other local utilities, such as Modern Electric Water Co. and Inland Power and Light, Vera is owned by its customers. It serves 9,000 people in eastern Spokane Valley.

Customers receive power based on which company serves their neighborhood; they cannot pick and choose.

Based solely on price per kilowatt-hour, Vera costs more than Avista for the first 600 kilowatt-hours. Vera’s rates become cheaper than Avista’s as usage rises. Vera’s base monthly charge of $3.60 also is lower than Avista’s, at $5. However, Avista’s rates also include surcharges for above-normal power costs, conservation programs and low-income rate assistance.

“Vera is a fairly small utility in a pretty confined area with a lot of customers per mile,” said Avista’s Norwood. “With Avista, we’re spread out, and in some cases we have a lot of rural customers. It costs more to get power to those customers and regulators say we have to charge everyone the same irrespective of where they live.”


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