It was 11 seconds of silence, and powerful.
Lori Moore was giving testimony before the Public Utilities Board (PUB) in St. John’s on Thursday morning, along with fellow ratepayers James Murphy and Keith Fillier. She was sharing stories of financial hardship and anxiety of people living in Newfoundland and Labrador, with the challenge of rising electricity rates, when she choked up with emotion.
There was silence in the hearing room, in the Prince Charles Building.
For 11 seconds she struggled to continue.
She was at that point sharing the story of a widow and her three children. The widow had struggled with bills, including electrical bills, reaching the point of thoughts of suicide and harm, before intervention, Moore said.
It was just one brief story she shared, saying she had been reaching out to people through social media and in person in places like the grocery store to talk about power costs.
“I respectfully submit that you reject this latest request for a rate hike,” she said to the PUB.
The morning’s presentations were part of a general rate application hearing for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, and a break from the average PUB hearing day — as was acknowledged by the commissioners and chair Darlene Whalen, who thanked the trio of presenters, and Seniors Advocate Dr. Suzanne Brake, for taking the time to speak.
Beyond requesting a rate freeze through 2018 and 2019, Moore, Murphy and Fillier all made appeals going far beyond the existing rate hike request, using words like “pain” and “desperation” in relation to rising costs in electricity. For one thing, they called for the PUB to be given greater power in dealing with the coming costs of the Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Project.
They spoke to the electrical utilities and to government, as much as to the board.
As The Telegram has reported, submissions by Hydro during the current PUB review suggested the board allow utilities to begin incorporating some costs from the Muskrat Falls project into rates as soon as Jan. 1, 2019, as a “rate smoothing” measure. Hydro has since backed off the suggestion, sticking now to its small rate increase request for January, not including direct Muskrat Falls costs.
But the big project costs are still coming.
The Liberal government has said internal committees in government and Nalcor Energy are working on the power rate problem, and the PUB will be brought in, but it’s unclear exactly when and how.
The presenters on Thursday asked for the PUB to be given a leading role now, not later.
“The only course which can set us on a path with any hope for affordable power in the future is for the Public Utilities Board to say ‘no’ to these proposed rate increases,” Fillier said. “Let there be no rate increases until a joint panel led by your board works co-operatively with a cross-section of stakeholders in the province to source ways to offset the cost of Muskrat Falls.”
He said the PUB should lead the “solution-finding mission.”
The ratepayer trio said there is a trust issue at play the Liberal government should consider.
“I think that the public are perfectly within their rights at this point to not fully trust the judgement or recommendations of Nalcor and Newfoundland Hydro, and apparently both P.C. and Liberal governments,” Murphy said, while at the microphone.
“If the well-being of the people of the province were first and foremost, us three wouldn’t have to be sitting here this morning giving a presentation to you fine folks,” he said.
The group criticized the Liberal government’s response to date, in terms of transparency on rate mitigation efforts. But they also criticized the Opposition for playing politics.
“This really isn’t the time for our politicians to be having a one-upmanship of each other, trying to fool the electorate into voting for them in the next election. This isn’t an election campaign. This is basically our futures we’re looking at and everybody is affected,” he said.
The utilities were not unscathed, with Fillier facing Newfoundland Power and Hydro representatives, one table and then the other, to tell them they should not seek and expect their traditional levels of return. Forecasting a painful future for ratepayers, backed by a collection of facts and figures on everything from demographics to economic growth forecasts, Fillier said the utilities need to share the pain ahead.
Speaking with reporters after the session, Murphy said having the opportunity to address the board was more than the trio could have hoped for, on the heels of establishing a grassroots protest movement in opposition to suggested power rate hikes.
Only about 40 people were on hand to hear the testimony, including record-keeping staff, utility lawyers, communications staff and reporters.
Hydro president Jim Haynes was there and told reporters after the session was concluded that the group did a good job in expressing the concerns of everyone in the province, with respect to the challenge ahead on power rates.
“We don’t take exceptions to the facts that they’ve said. There are real issues that Hydro, that we are concerned with and we have been concerned with from Day 1,” he said.
As for what might be done, he said there is still time to build the rate mitigation plan. “Hydro can’t solve that on its own. There are social policy issues,” he said, referring to the stories offered throughout the morning.
“When we come into the next rate application … we will need to have a considered plan.”