This winter, many Bloomington residents were shocked to see their Duke Energy bills had gone up significantly. Though most of it was due to the very cold temperatures we had, some residents weren’t aware that Duke Energy had also increased its rates.
“So it was a significantly lower increase than what the utility had asked for, still an increase nonetheless. And when you combine that with the really cold snap of weather that we've had the last several weeks, that is the recipe for a higher bill,” said Anthony Swinger, a spokesman for the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor.
But there are a lot of ways you can stay informed about your utility’s plans and make sure your opinion is heard.
How To Stay Informed:
We do our best to let you know when your utility wants to increase rates and what kinds of energy sources they plan to use in the future, but there are other things you can do to stay up to date.
You can check the website for the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor — it's a state agency that represents utility consumers in things like rate cases. The OUCC is on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and sends out a monthly newsletter.
Swinger said it’s also important to read any info you get with your bills.
“I know it's really tempting to look at several slips of paper and say, 'Well, this is probably junk' and toss it aside. But the reality is, there might be helpful and useful information in those bill inserts that you'll want to be aware of,” he said.
The utility consumer and environmental advocacy group the Citizens Action Coalition also has a wealth of information on its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. In addition to what’s happening with your utility, the group also has info on state legislation that could affect your utility and your bills.
How To Be Heard When Your Utility Wants To Increase Rates:
When an investor-owned utility in Indiana wants to increase rates, it has to go through a process a lot like a civil court case.
“So in a rate case, the utility has the burden of proof to show the need for an increase, the need for an amount,” Swinger said.
Other groups that don’t think the utility needs to increase rates — or maybe not by as much — might present their evidence and testimony. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) then acts as the judge — looking at all of what’s been presented and deciding whether the utility can increase rates and by how much.
The OUCC represents you, the utility consumer, in these cases. To let them know how you feel about your utility’s plans to increase rates, it’s best to send your comments to the agency in writing — either through its website, email, or through a letter. Swinger said sometimes the IURC will hold public hearings where you can give your thoughts too.
“They all go into the formal case record, which is evidence that the Commission is required to review before it makes a decision,” he said.
Swinger said you just want to make sure to get your written comments in before the deadline so the OUCC can include it in its testimony.
Getting Involved In Your Utility’s Future:
Every three years, investor-owned electric utilities in Indiana release what they call Integrated Resource Plans or IRPs. These show how the utility plans to provide reliable, affordable energy to its customers over the next 20 years.
That includes things like how much renewable energy it wants to add in the future or what coal plants it plans to retire. Unlike a rate increase, the state doesn’t have to approve IRPs.
“The utility determines how they're going to spend our money for the next 20 years. So that's a huge thing. And they have been more inclusive over the last few years, but it is really important that folks show up and at least, you know, make their presence known,” said Bryce Gustafson, an organizer with the Citizens Action Coalition.
Swinger said utilities usually have a page on their website dedicated to IRPs that explain how you can get involved and sign up for updates. The Citizens Action Coalition lists links to each investor-owned utility’s IRP page on the right-hand sidebar with info about when each one plans to start the process.
Duke Energy, for example, is in the middle of creating its IRP right now. It will hold six workshops on the IRP that stakeholders — including consumers — can attend. You can also view the slides or summaries from the two workshops that have already happened.
Gustafson said utilities will also usually have a public comment period if you’re unable to attend public meetings.
What If You Don’t Have An Investor-Owned Utility?
If you get your energy from a municipal utility or a Rural Electric Membership Corporation (REMC), your utility doesn’t have to get the state’s permission to do something like raise rates. But Gustafson said with these utilities, you have more opportunities to influence how decisions are made.
“Generally, the REMCs, you just have more direct contact with those folks,” he said. “The board of the REMCs are elected positions, so they have the opportunity to vote those folks in or out as well.”
Gustafson said it’s also helpful to talk to friends and neighbors who have the same REMC or municipal utility.
Your Utility And Politics:
If the past few years are any indication, state lawmakers are becoming more interested in how utilities make decisions as electric utilities around the country move away from coal and toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Gustafson said the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission — which oversees investor-owned utilities — is also guided by state laws. So he said it’s important that people develop relationships with their legislators.
“Really reach out and ask your legislator for a meeting, encourage your friends and neighbors who are on the same page as you to do that as well. They're more likely to meet with, you know, three, four, five, 10 constituents than they will with just one person. And that's really a process that folks need to do year-round. The problem is really, that these legislators — a lot of legislators don't hear enough from their constituents, especially on these kind of issues, especially Statehouse legislators,” he said.
Gustafson said you can also call your lawmakers, email them, send them a letter or even a postcard. He recommends keeping phone calls short and to the point and to use email to build up a relationship with your legislators.
“Make sure that you ask them for a response and if you don't get the response that you feel you deserve, then follow up with them,” he said.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.