The Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) recently received permission from the State Corporation Commission to increase the “access charge” applied to the bills of all residential customers, and REC did so in March. At my house, that amount was previously set at $10 but was increased by 40 percent to $14. REC says the increase was required because many REC customers have installed solar panel systems at their homes and consequently have reduced their consumption of REC-supplied electricity.
On the surface, this resembles the issue that was raised in Virginia and many other states when, with the advent of Priuses and other high mileage cars, the gasoline tax was increasingly not enough to cover the cost of road maintenance. But notice the difference. There is no separate “access charge” drivers must pay in order to use the highways. Assessing all car owners with a tax, thus seems reasonable. But REC charges us an access fee as separate and different from electric usage and, presumably, that fee was adequate to cover the cost of ongoing maintenance. The question is thus reasonably asked: How has homeowner installation of solar panels caused REC’s maintenance charges to increase? Common sense says that if the $10 charge was adequate in the past it ought to be sufficient now.
Many consumer advocates — AARP among them — have also opposed the increase. I assume their reasons were similar to those stated above. Why insist on the difference between maintenance and usage to collect more income but assume their identity when a drop in usage revenue occurs? In addition, increasing the access fee leads to social injustice. Many working families and poor people cannot afford to install solar panels. They nevertheless will be hit with the increased access charge. If by some Voodoo arithmetic that eludes me the increased access charge could be justified for those folks who have installed solar panels, it would certainly not be justified for everyone else. But given that this faulty accounting seems objectively and morally questionable, we of the Environmental and Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalists of the Blue Ridge Congregation (ESJ, UUBRidge) strongly oppose the increase.