Holding a dictionary, Virginia resident Andrew W. Young said it defined "rape" as a taking away by force. "Isn't that exactly what Vepco is doing to us?" he asked.

Young and dozens of other public witnesses testified yesterday in Williamsburg as the State Corporation Commission opened on-the-road hearings on a $246-million rate increase request by the Virginia Electric and Power Co.

The requested increase, if granted, would raise the cost of electricity by more than 20 percent for Vapco's 1.2 million customers. It is the highest utility rate increase request pending anywhere in the nation.

The public phase of the hearings continues today in Fairfax County, where the commission will hear testimony, and Chesapeake. Today's hearing begins at 10 a.m. in the county supervisor's board room at the Massey Building in the city of Fairfax.

When these hearings across the state are completed, the commission, which regulates utility rates in the state, will move back to its imposing hearing room in Richmond to hear more public testimony and then the lengthy, complex arguments on the substance of the case by the Vepco experts and others.

The commission's own staff - a powerful body of experts that operates largely independently of the three decision-making commissioners - already has indicated that Vepco could get along with a $170-million increase. The staff has criticized the company's efficiency.

Vepco President Stanley Ragone warned last week that the company will refile immediately for any revenues denied by the state regulators.He said that a $170-million rate hike "can only lead to repetitive rate relief requests."

"We'll be right back in there for the difference in February or March . . ." if the commission grants less than the $246-million increase, Ragone said.

Striking back at this attitude, Sen. William Fears (D-Accomac) said in yesterday's Williamsburg hearing that he will introduce legislation to prevent a utility from filing for a rate increase for at least one year following commission action on a previous request.

"I don't think this is fair to the public," said Fear of Ragone's promise to refile.

About 150 people appeared at the Williamsburg meeting. Many of those testifying were retired persons who said their fixed incomes cannot meet higher electricity costs.

Vepco has already received temporary permission from the SCC to boost rates by $82 million to pay for the operating portion of its new North Anna nuclear power plant. The $82 million is part of the $246-million overall request and is subject to review during the current hearings.

The largest portion of the requested increase, $164 million, would make up for the company's failure to earn its authorized profit as of the end of this year. The profit is money paid to investors who finance the company's building program.

Another $13 million of the increase would go to increase the percentage of return to these investors in the future, and a further $24 million would be a charge to current Vepco customers for construction of plants in progress even though the customers are not yet receiving power from such plants - a controversial point.

The argument at the heart of criticisms of Vepco's request has been that the utility's $600-million-a-year plant building program is unnecessary large.

Vepco's position is that it is building only to meet projected demand and that a cut in its building program may result in customers being blacked out on a rotating basis.