Henry E. Howell today stepped into one of his favorite political arenas, the hearing room of the State Corporation Commission, and made yet another appeal for lower electric rates for Virginia consumers.
Howell, the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia, has appeared at SCC proceedings five times this year and countless times in his 30-year legal and political career.
His client in this case, his wife, Elizabeth M. Howell, denied indignantly to a gathering of somewhat skeptical reporters after toda's hearing that her case has political ovetones.
"henry was simply here today as a very competent lawyer representing me and the other consumers of Virginia," she said. Howell, sitting by her side, nodded soberly.
Mrs. Howell also said the "resented" an allusion by Virginia Electric and Power Co. counsel Evans B. Brasfiel to "political rhetoric" as Brasfield argued against Howell's position today.
At issue was a small charge added to Vepco's rates in 1975 to recover a portion of the fuel costs Vepco reported that year. Howell has repeatedly said in recent political speeches that his charge is an "illegal surcharge on the "unfair fuel adjustment clause" in Vepco's SCC-approved rates.
The fuel adjustment clause permits Vepco and other utilities to pass on automatically changes in its fuel costs to consumers. In 1975, Vepco told the SCC tht the oil and coal price increases that followed the Arab oil embargo appeared to be permanent and suggested base rates be increased and fuel adjustments be reduced - a process that would not add to customers bills but would more accurately reflect permanent rates and temporary variations in fuel costs.
The commission agreed this should be done and also agreed that the reduction in the fuel charge would cost Vepco about $41 million in fuel payments it made during the five months before the rates wre adjusted.
To avoid that loss the commission permitted the company to add on a charge of 0.043 cents per kilowatt hour to electricity bills until it recovered the $41 million. Consumer representatives, including Howell, the attorney general of Virginia, the Consumer Congress of the Commonwealth of Virginia and lawyers for several cities and counties either endorssed the add-on called Rider E. or raised no objection to it.
Since then, howere, the Federal Power Commission has ruled that Vepco could not apply Rider E. to its sales to electric cooperatives. TO do so, the FPC said, would be to apply rates retroactively to the period before the fuel adjustment formula was changed. It is a fundamental rule of utility regulation that rates can be set only for the future and not changed for past periods.
Vepco has appealed the FPC decision and Brasfield argued today that the federal agency erred. He said it failed to recognize, as the SCC properly did that the fuel adjustment charge is designed to recover actual costs incurred months before customers are billed and therefore is not subject to attack as a retroactive rate.
Howell incorporated the FPC ruling into his arguments. In essence, his argument is that the fuel clause is intended to recover current not past, fuel costs and therefore cannot be applied to past periods through such devices as Rider E.
Howell, as did the FPC, pointed to the fact that Vepco applied the fuel charge immediately when it was authorized in 1972 and did not wait for five months as it should have if she adjustment clause were intended to recover actual cost incurred before the charge was passed on to customers.
Brasfiled also argues than the Howell petition submitted two years after the Rider E. decision must be dismissed on procedural grounds because it si nothing more than a request for reconsideration, which by SCC rule should have been made within 21 days of the 1975 rate order. Howell and other participants in the case also failed to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court before the deadline for doing so passed, Brasfield said.
Rider E. cost Vepco's 1 million Virginia residential customers an average of about 40 cents per month each last year. The monthly cost could reach a maximum of about $3.25 for the owner of an all-electric home in the coldest winter month. The charge is expected to expire in about two more years when the $41 million will have beeb collected.
TOday's cool argument contrasted with Howell's free-wheeling speeches denouncing utility practices. He often winds them up by declaring: "We are turkeys for the utilities in Virginia. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of being plucked."
Today's hearing took place 18 days before the gubernatorial election. Some observes believe Howell was helped to a Democratic primary victory in June by a pre-election SCC staff report that supported his petition for a refund of alleged axcess profits earned by gas companies during the cold 1976-77 winter. The SCC dismissed Howell's case after the primary election.
The three commissioners did not stay when will rule on the Rider E. petition.