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In blackout's wake, bill could shine light on utilities

Source: 
The Riverdale Press

Blackouts don't sit too well with the city that never sleeps.

In two separate incidents last month, more than 120,000 Con Edison customers in Manhattan and Brooklyn lost service. Subway trains stopped underground, people were stranded in dead elevators, folks sweltered in uncooled apartments, and Times Square was eerily dark.

Even before ConEd announced faulty wiring and overwhelmed systems were to blame, officials and critics alike began calling for greater government oversight of the utility giant. And that's nothing new for AARP New York, which took up that very banner following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

Sandy "highlighted the fact that there wasn't a utility consumer advocate in New York," said Bill Ferris, a lobbyist with the older Americans advocacy group.

In fact, it's one of the few states without such an office. More than 50 advocates in 43 other states represent customers in hearings when utility companies ask the government for rate increases. Such oversight is necessary, according to supporters of such advocacy offices, because consumers generally can't choose between electric utility providers.

Right now, if a utility wants to charge more for service in New York, it has to make a formal request to the state's Public Service Commission.

"And usually people sitting at that table are teams of economists, lawyers, experts in energy from the utility companies with a highly professional public service staff," Ferris said. "And when you look in that room, it's few and far between that you see an individual or an organization that is solely there to represent the interest of the ratepayer."

There are non-profit organizations, like the Public Utility Law Project, that advocate for consumers when possible, but aren't equipped to jump into every Public Service Commission proceeding.

The issue is particularly important to older adults living on a fixed income. AARP's statewide organization has lobbied legislators on behalf of its 2.6 million members in New York to establish an independent advocate office. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz lent his support to the cause early on.

"Probably six years ago, I read an article in The New York Times about the majority of states that had a utility consumer advocate's office," Dinowitz said. "I did some research, learned what it was, how it works, and how it's effective."

He pointed to the consumer savings won by a similar state-appointed advocate in California. It's lobbied for utility customers more than 200 times, saving them from more than $4 billion in rate hikes. With an almost $700 million rate increase to New York and Westchester County customers planned by ConEd for next spring, an advocate, Dinowitz said, is long overdue.

The Assemblyman introduced a bill creating a utility consumer advocate that would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate. The advocate would serve a six-year term as an at-will employee, acting independently to represent interests of utility customers without the fear of being removed for political reasons.

The bill made it through the Assembly over several years, but floundered in the Republican-controlled senate. The pattern repeated itself several times, but neither AARP nor Dinowitz stopped pushing.

"Objections were, 'Why do we need this? We have (a) Public Service Commission,'" Dinowitz said. "And I said it's because the Public Service Commission doesn't represent the consumers. That's not their job."

This past June, Dinowitz got the utility advocate bill through the Assembly once again. But the results in the upper chamber were much different this time around. Sen. Diane Savino - one of the remaining former members of the Independent Democratic Conference that helped keep Republicans in power for years - introduced the bill in the senate where it passed by a "comfortable margin" of 48-14. Now it's just waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature.

So far there's been "no feedback," Dinowitz said. It's unclear when the legislation will be signed, but a delay is normal when a bill involves budgetary allocation and careful legal review before becoming law. If signed, the office would be created after April 1 to ensure the state can fund it in next year's budget.

The consumer advocate can address anything regarding utility service with the Public Service Commission.

"A consumer advocate can say, 'The rate increase isn't too much, but I don't like the way the utility company is terminating people when they don't pay their bills,'" Ferris said. "It has nothing to do with the increase, it has nothing to do with money, it's just a policy that the utility is engaging in that the advocate can say is unfair to (a) ratepayer."

An advocate could also champion other issues, like how old or in what condition lines are leading into homes and businesses. Many times, capital improvement projects are what prompt rate increase requests in the first place, Ferris said. An advocate can look at a utility's infrastructure improvement plans and share their opinion on whether it's enough to ensure service is consistent and reliable.

Extra attention to service quality will hopefully prevent a repeat of July's blackouts.

"My feeling is that if the utility companies know there's even greater oversight taking place," Dinowitz said, "that's an incentive for them to go even further to ensure that they properly deliver services to the people as well as being a little more conservative in the rate increases they request."

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