CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It could be early in 2019 before the West Virginia Public Service Commission makes a decision on proposed rate hike requests from Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power, what are pitched as average 11 percent increases for residential customers.

“We’ve got fewer residential customers and they’re using less electricity,” said Jeri Matheney, communications director for Appalachian Power, of the driving factor for the proposal.

Since 2013, company officials said customer usage has dropped by 14 percent while the total number of residential customers is down by about 11,000.

“The economy in West Virginia still continues to be an issue for us, as it is for the state as a whole,” Matheney said of the numbers.

“If we can improve the economy, that makes it better for all of us.”

Even with customer numbers on the decline, Matheney said Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power must continue to cover fixed costs, like those for lines running to homes.

“Those stay whether or not they use electricity, whether or not we have more or fewer customers, we still have all that infrastructure in place,” Matheney said.

“So when we have fewer customers using less electricity, what happens is we have to spread those fixed costs among fewer people and that makes rates go up.”

At the same time, infrastructure maintenance and improvement costs have climbed, company officials said, with work ongoing for upgrades to generation facilities, transmission systems and distribution facilities within the service areas.

The large underground distribution improvement projects underway in Charleston, Huntington and Wheeling are examples.

“We continue to invest in our transmission and distribution network to ensure that service remains reliable,” said Chris Beam, president and chief operating officer of Appalachian Power, in a statement.

“Our goal is to balance our customers’ service expectations with the need to keep prices as low as possible.”

In all, the Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power proposed rate increases total $114 million in additional revenues.

For average residential customers, monthly bills will go up by about $14.81, if the request is approved. Commercial customers will pay 11.5 percent more, about $42.43 additionally each month on the average bill. Industrial rates would increase by 1.1 percent or $1,960.

A potential take effect date in Spring or Summer 2019 would mark three years since company customers saw the last base rate increases.

“Still the very best thing that an individual customer can do is try to manage their own bill by using less electricity,” Matheney said.

She noted the companies have also continued to work toward better efficiency to lower operations and maintenance costs on their end.

“That has helped us keep from asking for an increase for the last couple of years and has helped keep us this increase request as low as possible,” she said.

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