- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) - U.S. Sen. Jim Webb said Thursday he’s concerned about Dominion Virginia Power’s request to raise rates about 18 percent because of high fuel costs.

The Virginia Democrat sent a letter Thursday to the State Corporation Commission regarding the proposal, which would be the company’s largest one-time rate increase since 1970.

If it’s approved, it would mean an increase of $16.61 for an average residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month. The increase is designed to cover $1.1 billion in anticipated fuel costs for the 12 months beginning July 1.

In the letter to state regulators, Webb wrote that high electricity rates disproportionately affect low-income families. The average monthly bill would increase from $90.59 to $107.20 under the proposal.

“In this time of economic uncertainty, an increase in energy costs could compel individuals and families to choose between putting food on their table and paying their energy bill,” Webb wrote, also asking that small businesses be taken into account.

Dominion has said its costs for fuel - coal, natural gas, oil and uranium - have risen more than 200 percent since 2004 in some cases. The Richmond utility is also proposing to defer an estimated $697 million in fuel costs it incurred since a 4 percent rate increase last July. That amount would be collected over three years starting in July 2009. Without the deferred amount, the increase would have been about 22 percent for the average customer.

Under state law, the company does not make a profit on fuel rate increases. And no increase is being requested on the rate that covers base costs such as customer service and electricity delivery, the company has said.

“While I appreciate that the soaring costs of energy have impacted all sectors of the economy, including the utility sector, many families across Virginia already have difficulties meeting their basic needs,” Webb wrote.

The SCC, which authorized a 4 percent rate increase for Dominion last year, will hear public comment on June 24 in Richmond.

Dominion has said it is taking steps to help customers cope with the increased rates, including additional contributions to its program that helps low-income customers pay their heating and cooling bills, and changes to its budget billing plan. It also is opening budget billing to small businesses, nonprofits and house-of-worship customers.

“We share the senator’s concern about worldwide energy prices and want to protect consumers,” said David Botkins, spokesman for Dominion. “Our proposal minimizes the impact and offers new budget-billing programs for businesses and puts $5 million more into EnergyShare to help our most needy customers pay their bills.”

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