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WUTC asked to dismiss Puget Energy rate hike request

"Stalled by public opposition, an 18-percent emergency increase in electricity rates sought by Puget Sound Energy may not survive a hearing in October before the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC).On Tuesday, Sept. 4, the WUTC's three commissioners held a pre-hearing conference in Olympia to consider the rate hike, which PSE officials say is necessary if the private utility is to remain on a firm financial footing.Tim Sweeny, a spokesman for the WUTC, said last Wednesday that public counsel Simon Fitch asked the commissioners to dismiss PSE's emergency rate case. Fitch's motion, Sweeny said, forces the commissioners to take a full month to review the case before they begin taking testimony for and against the rate hike.We need more than 30 days to review this thing, he said.PSE's request for a rate hike is a complicated issue. Sweeny said the company's move to introduce an emergency increase prior to presenting the WUTC with a long-term rate plan later this year is something more typical of a water utility. Those utilities often use the pre-emptive increases to fund facilities improvements, he said.For the commissioners to approve the rate increase, they would have to overlook a 1996 rate freeze negotiated when PSE acquired Washington Natural Gas. That freeze allowed PSE to raise its electricity rates 1.5 percent in each of the past two years, but no more.Whether that freeze can be circumvented is one of the most important questions facing the WUTC commissioners. That is a big part of this case, Sweeny said.To rule on the increase, the commissioners will have to examine PSE's financial documents to determine whether the company actually needs more income. The commissioners will weigh the financial evidence and public testimony in making a decision, provided the commissioners do not choose to dismiss PSE's case outright.Dorothy Bracken, a spokesperson for PSE, said she expects the company's request to make it to a hearing.We have no indication to expect otherwise, she said.In addition to the emergency increase, PSE is also asking the WUTC to tie future electricity rates to the cost of power. Under PSE's plan, consumers would pay more when electricity costs are high, like they were last spring during the California power crisis. Consumers would pay less when the price of electricity is lower.PSE asked for the rate increase on Aug. 21 after the federal government placed a cap on the price the company could get for selling its excess power on the wholesale market. The company also cited increased electricity production costs due to low water levels at its three hydroelectric power plants. "

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