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The Journal Gazette

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017 1:00 am

I&M gets an earful over rate hike plan

Some claim utility's failure created need

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

Fort Wayne area residents Tuesday night said they don't much care for Indiana Michigan Power's proposal to raise residential rates by 19.7 percent and more than double the fixed charge on their bills in the next two years.

At a public hearing at the Grand Wayne Center, senior citizens said they couldn't afford what the utility has pegged as a $26 monthly increase in bills of customers using 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity – and still buy medicine, health insurance and groceries.

Others complained the utility didn't do enough to transition to renewable energy sources and curb pollution.

“We asked you not to build a nuclear plant and you ignored us. We asked you to do something about emissions, and you ignored us. Now you're asking us to pay for your bad business decisions?” asked Diane Groehnert, 68, a Fort Wayne artist, in written comments submitted before the hearing.

Kyle Miller, 29, of Fort Wayne, office manager of a family asphalt business, said he objected to the company's continuing “to ask for rate hike after rate hike” while not moving technologically forward.

“We're not investing in a lot of renewable energy sources,” Miller told a reporter prior to the hearing. “What is our money being used for?”

He suggested it's being used to pay for recently installed meters – ones that that lack “smart” features – and “keeping Rockport open.”

Rockport is a coal-fired power plant in southern Indiana. The plant was named the second most toxic power plant in Indiana in 2014 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The utility plans to “adjust depreciation of the plant to gain more flexibility as our generation (of electricity) transitions to other energy sources such as solar, wind and natural gas,” according to a statement issued by the utility in conjunction with the rate case.

“The people down there are already paying what it is doing with their health. And we have to pay more up here and they're already paying, said Kate Black, 63, of Fort Wayne.

The hearing, which drew about 70 people, came a day after the Trump administration announced plans to roll back regulations on coal-fired power plants under the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Although the utility said some of the additional money was needed in part to meet “a number of new federal guidelines” at the Cook Nuclear Plant, Brian Bergsma, director of communications and governmental affairs said before the hearing it's not yet clear what the effect of the rollback might be.

The utility's position is the plan “is not consistent with the true authority of the EPA as we see it,” he said. I&M must plan as if the Obama-era rules will go into effect until officials know what will replace them, he said.

I&M wants to raise more than $263 million annually from the rate increase. The utility also plans to more than double its fixed charge per residential customer from $7.30 to $18 per month. 

The increase would be phased in over two years. The first phase would come next summer and the second in early 2019.

Money will fund systematic tree-trimming and tree-clearing program near power lines, replacing poles and overhead and underground lines, sectionalizing circuits so weather and tree-limb related outages affect fewer customers and rebuilding underground networks in several cities, including Fort Wayne.

Falling limbs are the top cause of outages, I&M officials said.

rsalter@jg.net