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NH Department of Energy pushes back on Liberty Utilities request for rate increase

Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR

New Hampshire’s Department of Energy is trying to block Liberty Utilities from raising their electricity rates, saying their request was based on faulty financial information.

Earlier this year, Liberty filed a request with the Public Utilities Commission to raise rates. They said they were looking to raise their annual revenues by more than $15 million on a permanent basis and more than $6 million temporarily.

At the time, the company said the change was necessary because they invested in projects that were needed to provide safe and reliable service, but didn’t earn revenue.

But in a motion filed this week, the New Hampshire Department of Energy said the financial records underlying Liberty’s request are full of errors, in large part because of a billing system transition that happened in 2022.

“The significant rate increases proposed by Liberty are unwarranted and would be a heavy burden on New Hampshire families and businesses,” Department of Energy Commissioner Jared Chicoine said in a statement.

Chicoine said the company’s rate request is based on unreliable information and their “requested rate increase is unreasonable.”

The Department of Energy arrived at this conclusion after completing an audit of the records Liberty used to support their rate case filing. State officials found multiple discrepancies across three sets of Liberty’s financial records.

Among other inconsistencies, the state’s report shows Liberty’s records were missing almost 200 entries when compared to another filing the company made with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

According to state energy officials, Liberty “conceded that it booked $642,935 of payroll taxes to the wrong account” after implementing its new billing system.

After inquiries from the Department of Energy and the Office of the Consumer Advocate, the company reported that its filings accidentally left out rental expenses for three of its properties. And the company said it had a backlog of about 670 accounts that were not billed in 2022.

In a written statement, Liberty said they are reviewing the state’s motion and plan to file a response.

In their request to block Liberty’s rate hikes, state officials note that regulators have been asked to throw out similar cases elsewhere, pointing to cases in Texas from 1981 and in Florida from 2007.

New Hampshire consumer advocate Don Kreis said the Department of Energy’s move came as a surprise.

“It's a startling and, I think, unprecedented suggestion from a party to a rate case,” he said.

But, Kreis said, state regulators should take the Department of Energy’s motion seriously. His office has also filed a response to Liberty’s rate request, saying the company is asking for too much of an increase.

“The rate case needs to be put under a microscope,” he said. “Every claim that the company makes to needing more money has to be skeptically examined. That's what we've done.”

If Liberty’s rate case is dismissed, the company could face difficulty investing in new facilities.

“It creates a real crisis, both for the company and its customers,” Kreis said. “If the company is either unwilling or unable to make the kinds of investments in its infrastructure that it needs to continue providing safe and reliable service, then there is the risk that the service won’t be there.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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