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Rural electric companies wary of deregulation efforts

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

While giants like Allegheny Power are pushing for electric deregulation, the industry's Davids aren't quite as interested in pulling the plug on governmental control.

"My concern is my customers are going to see higher prices overall," said George Carter, general manager of Harrison Rural Electrification Association, Inc. in Harrison County.

The association, which serves about 6,000 customers in seven counties, is one of five rural electric companies in the state.

"We work the same as any other utility except we're a non-profit and we don't have stockholders," Carter said. "We buy from the transmission grid. Right now, we're purchasing all our power from Allegheny."

Therein lies the problem, he said.

Carter believes deregulation would allow the industrial customers that now subsidize residential consumers to cut deals for lower rates, disproportionately transferring costs to his nearly all-residential base.

Gov.-elect Bob Wise and state legislators indicated this week they may postpone the state's deregulation plan in order to study deregulation-linked price and power-supply problems in California and other states.

"Sometimes when the Public Service Commission and the Legislature are working on things, they don't always consider the guy at the end of the hollow," Carter said of another aspect of deregulation, the opportunity for customers to shop around.

"The big companies don't want our customers," he said of remote locations that lacked electricity until a federal effort created small companies to fill in gaps in power service in the mid-1900s.

In fact, Carter suspects the association may actually pick up some isolated customers that larger companies are less interested in serving.

Caton Hill, an attorney who is Philippi's mayor, said that city's small electric company would also like to keep its 1,500 customers and regulation-era costs.

"For years and year and years, we had the cheapest electric rates in the state," Hill said, adding the city is exploring the idea of building a small generating plant with some other municipalities in the southern part of the state.

The city is also upgrading its electric system and has pursued membership in AMP-Ohio, a lobbying and service organization for rural electric providers.

The West Virginia five -- which also include a municipal/Allegheny Power hybrid in Wetzel County's New Martinsville and two Virginia companies that supply areas in the south -- also have an attorney to lobby in Charleston.

"We understand we don't have a lot of clout," Carter said of the reality of small-scale lobbying. "We're not slowing down at all (in preparing for possible deregulation). We have to be prepared no matter what they do."

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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