Friday, December 21, 2007

NYC Bar Association Energy Committee Recommends New State Energy Planning Board

The Energy Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York has issued a Report on Energy Planning, urging state policy makers to take a more proactive role in planning for future energy needs. The Report has a useful history of the state's prior energy planning, done under a now lapsed statute, and does not urge replication of the former planning structure of the now defunct state energy office. In reality, major stakeholders are always planning. What is lacking today in New York is transparency, coordination, and accountability of energy planners to consumers and to the public at large.

Over the past decade, New York state abandoned formal energy planning in the hope that reliance on deregulation and market forces would meet growing electricity needs at lower cost in an environmentally acceptable manner. Depending on one's perspective, this was either a big mistake or a bad idea. Although some persist in confidence that unregulated markets will meet future needs, when the rubber hits the road and new power plants must be built, the merchant power sector generally has not met the need and it has been necessary for publicly owned utilities (NYPA and LIPA) or the old distribution companies (Con Edison) to address the need:
In metropolitan New York City, merchant power producers have not built new capacity to meet the growing load. For example, in metropolitan New York City, most recently-completed capacity (86 percent or 1,700 MW) was built by the New York Power Authority, Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., or under contract to them. Generators and load serving entities are taking significantly different positions in an investigation of New York City’s generating capacity markets before the FERC about the ability of merchant suppliers to build new energy supply facilities. Some merchant generators consider that the revenue available through the NYISO’s current markets is inadequate to support investment in new generating capacity and that future capacity markets are unpredictable and unreliable.
The Report recognizes weaknesses in the NYISO planning, which only addresses reliability needs and not attainment of affordable prices or environmental goals. When "the market" fails to produce needed facilities, the NYISO "plan" ultimately punts to the old utilities to meet their duty to serve (eschewed by the NYISO and merchant power utilites) by undertaking regulatory backstop solutions to satisfy reliability criteria. This has meant either building their own plants or entering into long term contracts to buy the output from a new plant to be owned by others. Thus, commitments are made for which utility consumers must pay in the future in order to finance new "competitive" plants.

The Report recommends creation of a new Energy Planning Board comprised of state agency heads. Its members would include the PSC Chairman, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, Chairman of NYSERDA. The NYISO would have an important advisory role:
The Energy Policy Board would include the chairs of the Commission, the DEC, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (“NYSERDA”) and the Empire State Development Corporation. The Board would prepare a biennial statement of State energy policy recommendations, addressing the (1) risks, benefits and uncertainties of energy supply sources, (2) emerging energy trends, (3) energy policies and long-range planning objectives and strategies, (4) administrative and legislative actions needed to implement energy plans and objectives and (5) impact of the energy policy statement’s recommendations on economic development. The energy policy statement would provide the framework for coordinated actions and decisions by State agencies.
The proposed new board could foster coordination of Executive Branch agencies, but it leaves out any role for legislative leaders. In the current vacuum of energy planning, and the continued suctioning of wealth from New York City consumers to merchant power providers who may have an interest in sustaining scarcity there, New York City stepped up to the plate recently and proposed its own, highly proactive, energy plan. Unlike the Energy Committee Report, which seems careful not to trouble proponents of deregulation, the New York City Energy Plan issued earlier this year minces no words:
New Yorkers face rising energy costs and carbon emissions from an ineffective market, aging infrastructure, inefficient buildings, and growing needs. That’s why we must make smart investments in clean power and energy-saving technologies to reduce our electricity and heating bills by billions of dollars, while slashing our greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 27 million metric tons every year.
The ABCNY Energy Committee Report certainly points in the right direction toward a better planning process, and in many respects it is a breath of fresh air. But leaving out major players like legislative leaders, NYPA, LIPA, the City of New York, and distribution utilities who have the duty to serve, and relegating them to a role of commenting on draft plans of the proposed board, may not yet be a full solution to the energy planning needs of the state.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Public Power, Industrial and Residential Consumer Groups Demand FERC Review of Organized Spot Markets

A longtime proponent of competitive markets, the American Public Power Association (APPA) is concerned that organized markets allowed by FERC to set wholesale rates privately with little or no oversight are not functioning to yield the "just and reasonable rates" the Federal Power Act requires to protect consumers. Because APPA members are publicly owned utilities, APPA has a heightened concern about excessive wholesale rates being passed through to their members retail customers and has undertaken a reform initiative.

On December 17, 2007, APPA and forty other organizations, including NASUCA, PULP, Public Citizen, other utility consumer advocates, and groups representing large industrial customers joined in a motion to FERC in a proceeding involving all the organized spot markets to scrutinize whether those markets are properly designed, and whether the market rates they establish are just and reasonable.

FERC had sought public comment on just four organized spot market issues:
  • the role of demand response
  • long-term power contracting
  • market monitoring, and
  • responsiveness of RTOs and ISOs
The motion supported the limited FERC initiative, but argued that the limited initiatives are inadequate to address systemic failure of the spot markets to yield reasonable rates, making
  • Electricity consumers of all stripes recognize that the problems in the organized markets run much deeper than the current investigation is probing
  • FERC needs to broaden the scope of its proposed investigation to address the core issue of whether the private spot markets are producing unjust and unreasonable wholesale power prices
  • Certain large utilities in RTO regions are earning supra-competitive profits far in excess of returns on investments in other enterprises having corresponding risks
  • Rates consumers pay in the functionally deregulated regions where the private spot markets are setting wholesale rates are consistently higher than rates in traditionally regulated areas and are increasing faster
  • Price increases in prices in organized spot market areas are only partially due to increases in fuel prices
  • Other non-cost-of-service related factors, including the exercise of market power, also play a significant role in higher rates of organized spot markets
  • High prices and high rates of return have not attracted new investment and supply in the regions with private spot markets
The pleading asserts that FERC's reliance on privately set rates in organized markets is based on presumed conditions that are "at variance with reality." These unwarranted assumptions include
  • the absence of significant market power
  • the existence of free entry to and exit from the market by suppliers in response to "price signals"
  • the existence of an optimized resource mix to assure inframarginal revenues earned by generators are just and reasonable
  • the absence of impediments to long-term contracting, and
  • price-responsive demand, short-term substitution alternatives, and demand elasticity
The motion to FERC concludes
If the Commission’s investigation reveals unjust or unreasonable rates, contracts, or practices, it must take action to address them. Chairman Kelliher has pointed out that, in such circumstances, declining or failing to act simply is not an option that is lawfully available to the Commission. He has stated, quite correctly, that “[t]he legal duty of the Commission to prevent unjust and unreasonable rates and undue discrimination or preference in the sale of wholesale power or interstate transmission by jurisdictional sellers is absolute; the Commission does not have the discretion to ignore them.” The Undersigned Parties therefore urge the Commission to investigate this issue, to fulfill its statutory obligation.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cornell Professor Gives Low Marks to NYISO Electricity Markets

In a September 2007 report prepared for the American Public Power Association (APPA) as part of its electricity market reform initiative, Cornell Professor Timothy Mount identifies numerous weaknesses in the wholesale electricity markets operated by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO):

An important difference between regulated and deregulated generation is that the revenues received by generators in a regulated market are tied to actual costs. In a deregulated market, a large part of the net revenue earned above the operating costs is fungible and does not necessarily go toward the capital costs of generating capacity in a particular region. In a regulated market, customers know what they are paying for. This is no longer the case in a deregulated market and a sizable portion of the bill a customer pays for generation may, in fact, be transferred to another region or another country or another industry within the structure of a given holding company. Given the complexity and the rapid changes of the structure of many companies that now own power plants, it is extremely difficult to determine exactly where this money goes.

Of particular concern is the lack of the NYISO capacity markets to stimulate merchant power companies to build new power plants:

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being paid through the capacity market to the owners of installed generating capacity to supplement their earnings in the wholesale market. The main accomplishment of these extra payments is to increase the market value of existing generating capacity. There is no obligation placed on generators to build new capacity when and where it is needed. The NERC report on reliability discussed earlier shows that projected capacity margins above the peak loads are falling in all deregulated regions. Delays by investors in their commitment to build new generating capacity are developing into a serious national problem. The overall conclusion is that the current performance of deregulated electricity markets is poor in terms of ensuring that there is enough installed generating capacity to meet projected loads reliably. This is true even though substantial payments have been made to generators through capacity markets to supplement their earnings in the wholesale market.

As a result of the reliance on market forces, the spare capacity needed to maintain reliable service is shrinking:

In the 2004 report, the forecasted reserve margin was always above the 18% needed to meet the reliability standard up to the end of the forecast period in 2013. However, in the 2005 report and the 2006 report, the forecasted reserve margins fall below the 18% standard by 2008.

The reason for the recent drop in the forecasted reserve margins is that there have been delays in the construction of new generating units even though they have been issued construction licenses. The lists of new generating units are essentially the same in the different reports, but the proposed in-service dates are quite different. In 2004, nine generating projects, with a total capacity of 2,038 MW, were under construction. This was two-thirds of the total of 3,120 MW approved. Another 1,605 MW had applications pending. In 2005, the amount of capacity under construction was still 2,038 MW, but none of the other projects had proposed in-service dates. The important implication is that it is no longer realistic in a typical deregulated market to assume that a generating unit will be built after regulators have approved a license for construction. This was typically not the case under regulation. In a deregulated market, merchant generators have no obligation to complete projects if the prospects for recovering capital costs deteriorate during the construction process.

The problem is most acute in the New York City area:

Given the age and low ACF of many existing generating units in NYC, some of these units are scheduled for retirement in the near future. Combining this situation with the current reluctance of investors to build new generating capacity33, the most important region to consider at this time is the LICAP market in NYC. The basic questions are: 1) how much money is paid to generators in NYC, and 2) is this amount enough to finance the investment needed to maintain generation adequacy? The answers imply that the LICAP market in NYC is an example of how a capacity market can be expensive for customers and still not provide an effective way to maintain generation adequacy. This is true even though the state regulators designed the LICAP market specifically to deal with the issue of generation adequacy.

While claiming to rely on market forces, New York has relied on stop gap measures, and called upon publicly owned utilities and Con Edison to effectuate construction of most of the new power plants built in the past decade:

[T]he larger incumbent firms can exploit the LICAP market given the pattern of ownership of generating capacity in NYC. In spite of the fact that the cost of the LICAP market is very high, investors have not stepped forward to build new generating capacity and in 2006 the regulators had to resort to ad hoc ways to meet reliability standards for 2008 in NYC.
The amount already wasted on capacity payments to existing power plant owners to induce a market response totals billions of dollars, and would have been enough to build the needed new power plants:

Even though steps have been taken to deal with the projected shortfall, this does not change the overall conclusion that the LICAP market has been an expensive and an ineffective way to maintain generation adequacy. In 2005 and 2006, customers paid over $1 billion/year in the LICAP market in NYC and merchant investors were still reluctant to commit to specific in-service dates for new generating units that have already received licenses for construction. This amount of money is enough to finance over 12,000 MW of new peaking capacity at a capital cost of $80/kW/Year (from Table A1 in the Appendix), and this amount of additional capacity would more than double the installed generating capacity in NYC.

At this point, it is likely that New York City or state agencies will need to be more proactive before it is too late and reliability is sacrificed. In 1996, when it envisioned the current system of market reliance, the PSC refused an effort of Enron to reduce the reliability reserve margin, saying reliability is paramount. Last year, the PSC lowered the capacity reserve margin deemed necessary for reliability from 18% to 16.5%. This reduction had the effect of extending the time limit for construction of new plants needed to maintain reliability. The PSC reduction was made on the recommendation of the New York Reliability Council, after a divided vote with several members voting against the reduction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Electricity Consumer Advocates Seek Supreme Court Review of FERC Market Rate Orders

Several years ago, after manipulation of market-based rates for wholesale electricity was exposed, FERC took action to ban certain manipulative practices used by Enron and others to create artificial scarcity and drive prices up. FERC commenced a proceeding under Section 206 of the Federal Power Act, declaring all market rate tariffs to be unjust and unreasonable, and then proposed to "fix" them by adding certain conditions intended to discourage price manipulation.

A number of consumer advocates intervened in the case, contending that FERC's "fixes" were not sufficient to bring the tariffs into compliance with longstanding Federal Power Act requirements. They contend that the law requires all rates to be filed publicly in advance, before they take effect, and that FERC lacks authority to dispense with the statutory filing requirement by allowing sellers to make secret rate changes and to disclose actual rates only after they have been implemented and charged. Also, they argue that FERC has no objective yardstick by which to measure whether a market rate is just and reasonable. Also, see Consumer Groups Question FERC Market Rates, and Consumer Challenge to FERC "Market-Based Rate" System Proceeds. See also, May the FERC Rely on Markets to Set Electric Rates?.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed FERC's orders. See FERC Escapes Court Review of its Legal Authority for its Electricity Market Rate Regime. The advocates moved for rehearing. See Consumer Advocates Seek Rehearing of D.C. Circuit Court Decision Allowing FERC to Avoid Consideration of Statutory Filing Requirements. The motion for rehearing was denied.

In late November 2007 the consumer advocates, including PULP, filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. In October 2007 the Supreme Court granted review in another case involving remedies for unjust and unreasonable market rates. See U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Electricity Market Rate Refund Case.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

FCC Denies Verizon Request for Deregulation in Six Major Areas Including Metropolitan New York

In the early 1990's, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempted to deregulate providers of telecom services under its jurisdiction who were not dominant in the market, i.e., they lacked market power. Under the agency's own deregulatory initiatives, the FCC "detariffed" long distance service providers like MCI, while continuing to regulate the dominant provider, AT&T.

In a court challenge to the agency's claim of power to deregulate providers who lack market power, the Supreme Court held that for better or worse, the statutes written by congress had created a filed rate regulation system that did not give the agency power to modify filing requirements by abolishing them. See MCI v. AT&T. This Supreme Court reminder that only Congress can change statutory rate filing requirements added pressure on Congress to revise the basic laws under which interstate telecom services are provided and regulated.

In 1996, a new regulatory platform was created by Congress when it enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In addition to spelling out criteria and procedures for the FCC to follow before deregulating services, the new law added important new universal service initiatives, such as mandating Lifeline and Linkup services (which previously depended on state initiatives), and providing for broadband access to schools and libraries.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to "forbear" from enforcement of statutes and regulations if it determines that the regulation is not needed to protect consumers or to ensure just and reasonable rates and practices by carriers. This reflects the dubious assumption that a competitive market necessarily produces reasonable rates. In an extremely unusual provision, if a telecom company files a "forbearance petition" the 1996 Telecom Act requires the FCC to determine whether forbearance will promote competitive markets and is in the public interest. Unless the Commission responds to petitions for forbearance within one year – a deadline which can be extended by only 90 days – the relief sought by the utility is "deemed granted" by operation of law. Thus, without any action by congress or the regulatory agency, a telecom utility is allowed to trigger its own deregulation and to achieve that if its forbearance petition is not rejected by the FCC within the statutory period .

In 2006, Verizon filed petitions for regulatory forbearance in six large metropolitan areas, including New York, the nation's largest area. With forbearance, Verizon rates under FCC jurisdiction would have been deregulated, and rate increases could take effect without adequate public notice or any opportunity for prior agency review for reasonableness.

Consumer groups, including the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA) and PULP, opposed the request for deregulation, filed initial comments objecting to Verizon's request for regulatory forbearance, arguing that the competition tests had not been met, and filed reply comments in response to Verizon's answering papers.

On November 2007, the FCC rejected Verizon's request. According to the FCC Press Release, "The Commission found that the current evidence of competition does not satisfy the
section 10 forbearance standard with respect to any of the forbearance Verizon requests.
Accordingly, the Commission denied the requested relief in all six MSAs." In a subsequent order, the FCC detailed its reasons for rejecting the Verizon request for deregulation.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Lawsuit Involving Death of Velma Fordham Settled by National Fuel

The Public Service Commission (PSC) Penalty Proceeding
In September 2001, the New York PSC issued an order to show cause why National Fuel Gas Distribution Company should not face a penalty arising from the denial of service to a customer, Velma Fordham, who later was discovered dead in her unheated apartment, and found by the Medical Examiner to have died from hypothermia. The potential fines from several alleged violations of the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA) were $19 million. NFG denied having violated any HEFPA requirements. PULP intervened in the case and participated in discovery.

Eventually, after Staff filed a scoping statement with detailed allegations outlining its intended proof at hearing, a proposed settlement agreement was reached between DPS Staff and NFG.

Under the agreement, no penalties were imposed. National Fuel agreed only to add $1.5 million to a program designed to aid low income customers, and to fund an audit of its practices regarding the Home Energy Assistance Program.

PULP did not join in the settlement. PULP also objected to a lack of transparency regarding the proposed settlement, because the PSC had required any comments on the settlement proposal to be non public.

The proposed settlement was approved by the PSC in 2004, more than three years after Ms. Fordham's death.

Buffalo Judge Makowski Dismisses the Private Tort Action for Wrongful Death
In 2006, a wrongful death action on behalf of Velma Fordham's estate was dismissed by Buffalo Judge Joseph G. Makowski as having been brought too late. His decision apparently was influenced by testimony of Michael Baden, hired as a forensic expert by National Fuel, who estimated the time of Ms. Fordham's death to have been more than two years prior to commencement of the lawsuit. The lawsuit was brought within two years of the date of death reported by the Erie County Medical Examiner.

The Appellate Division Reinstates the Action, Underscoring The Public Interest in HEFPA Compliance
In an April, 2007 decision, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department reversed Judge Makowski's decision, and reinstated the case. The court said "the testimony of the Chief Medical Examiner undercuts both the credibility of National Fuel's expert (Michael Baden) and the substance of his opinion with respect to the date of death."

More importantly, moving on to discuss the plaintiff's claims, the Appellate Division rendered a major decision regarding the effect of HEFPA violations.

The appellate court found sufficient evidence of negligence on the part of NFG for having violated Ms. Fordham's rights to service under the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA), Article 2 of the New York Public Service Law:
The evidence supports plaintiff's allegations that National Fuel was negligent based on the violation of its obligations under the Public Service Law, the corresponding regulations, and its own procedures by denying the application of decedent for continuing service at her new residence (see § 31 [3]; 16 NYCRR 11.3 [a] [5]), and based on its failure to initiate service within five days of decedent's original request for gas service or within a reasonable period thereafter, allowing for delays occasioned by the snow storm (see Public Service Law § 31 [5]; 16 NYCRR 11.3 [a] [4]). The Legislature has recognized that discharging those obligations in the provision of residential gas service "is necessary for the preservation of the health and general welfare and is in the public interest" (Public Service Law § 30; see 16 NYCRR 11.1).
The court rejected National Fuel's defense that Ms. Fordham should have done more to get additional welfare assistance. (Ms. Fordham had obtained an Emergency HEAP payment of $700 which was rejected by National Fuel as insufficient).

Punitive Damages Claim Allowed for HEFPA Violations
The court also reinstated claims for punitive damages, to be determined by a jury, stating:
Here, there is evidence that National Fuel failed to discharge its obligation to decedent under the Public Service Law and its own procedures by failing to respond in a timely manner to her original request for gas service. In addition, National Fuel's CBR erroneously treated decedent as a new customer rather than a continuing customer and led her to believe that the activation of her gas service was contingent upon her satisfaction of a 1997 judgment or qualification for direct payment by DSS. Those errors were given the apparent endorsement of a supervisor . . . . The alleged conduct of National Fuel implicates public health and safety concerns . . . as well as the policies permitting awards for punitive damages. Such awards "are intended as punishment for gross misbehavior for the good of the public and have been referred to as a sort of hybrid between a display of ethical indignation and the imposition of a criminal fine . . . . Punitive damages are allowed on the ground of public policy and not because the plaintiff has suffered any monetary damages for which [s]he is entitled to reimbursement . . . . The damages may be considered expressive of the community attitude towards one who wilfully and wantonly causes hurt or injury to another. . . . dismissal of plaintiff's claim for punitive damages is premature, and the issue whether the actions of National Fuel warrant the imposition of punitive damages should be determined at trial.
Reversal of Judge Makowski's Sealing Order
Finally, in a sharp rebuke to Buffalo trial court judge Joseph G. Makowski, the Appellate Division reversed his sua sponte order sealing all the records of the case from public disclosure, including his own decision dismissing the case, stating:
Plaintiff contends that the court erred in sua sponte directing that its decision and the moving papers upon which it is based be filed under seal. Here, the court made no finding of good cause, as required by the regulation.... Further, apart from the regulation, "[t]he right of access to . . . court records is also firmly grounded in common-law principles" . . . . Courts should be reluctant to seal court records even when all of the parties to the litigation have requested such sealing . . . and we perceive no legitimate basis for sealing any part of the record here . . . . To the contrary, this action raises serious issues of legitimate public concern, and "[t]he public interest in openness is particularly important on matters of public concern, even if the issues arise in the context of a private dispute" . . . . We therefore conclude that the sealing directive should be vacated.
Previously, Judge Makowski,without notice, made an ex parte order purporting to gag the Attorney General's office and PULP from discussing or disclosing papers filed in the PSC penalty case. Makowski at the request of NFG issued subpoenaes in a pre litigation discovery order, in anticipation of the wrongful death action that had not yet been filed. The Attorney General submitted to jurisdiction of the court and then later made a motion to relax Makowski's gag order, because the bulk of the papers filed at the PSC did not involve the subpoenaed papers which Makowsi had sealed in the judicial discovery proceeding. Judge Makowski did not timely decide the Attorney General's motion. When some of the papers sealed by Makowski were included in NFG's multi-volume filings at the PSC in response to the PSC Order to Show Cause, NFG argued that their entire response could not be made public and could not be provided to PULP. A PSC Administrative Law Judge eventually ruled that nearly all the papers filed by NFG in the PSC case, excepting for a few autopsy photographs, are publicly available documents under the Freedom of Information Law.

Confidential Settlement of the Wrongful Death Action
According to a 10-k report filed by NFG with the SEC on November 29, 2007, the wrongful death and punitive damages claims were scheduled for trial beginning in October, 2007, but then, more than six years after Velma Fordham's death, a settlement was reached.

The amount of the settlement is not known. According to a Buffalo News article, the terms of the settlement apparently are being kept confidential by agreement of parties to the litigation.

Importance of the Case
Despite National Fuel's steadfast insistence it did no wrong, the death of Velma Fordham, and the Appellate Division decision recognizing claims for damages, including punitive damages, arising from utility denial of HEFPA rights is significant judicial recognition of the potential life and death consequences of a lack of utility service. The Appellate Division decision constitutes a fitting postscript to this extremely sad matter involving the loss of a life, one which stands in contrast to lax PSC administrative enforcement of HEFPA and a lack of effective administrative sanctions for HEFPA violations. In the end, it was necessary for private litigants and their counsel to vindicate consumer rights under HEFPA.

For more papers in the case, see PULP's webpage on the death of Velma Fordham.

PULP Replies to National Grid's "Grand Plan" Defense

National Grid has been demanding that applicants for utility service pay 100% of bills for old, closed accounts, or $1,000 if the amount owed exceeds $1,000, if, during the prior period of service the customer had defaulted on a deferred payment agreement (DPA). See New Barrier to Utility Service: National Grid's "One Grand Demand".

The "Grand Plan" results in denial or lengthy delays in service and considerable hardship. The absence of safe utility service can be a matter of life or death, as illustrated by a recent, tragic Pennsylvania case. See Mom Sought Help Before Fatal Fire.

Applicants denied utility service due to the "Grand Plan" rule are challenging it in a Petition Seeking Interim Relief and a Declaratory Ruling and Other Relief to the Public Service Commission filed October 16, 2007. See PSC Asked to Investigate Grid's "Grand Plan".

Petitioners argue that Section 31 of the Public Service Law requires National Grid to offer a DPA with a down payment of no more than half the balance due or the amount of three months'
service, whichever is less. Also, they argue that under Section 37, all payment agreements must be fair and equitable and based on the customer's financial situation.

All of the individuals who filed affidavits in support of the petition, from whom utility service ahd been withheld under the challenged rule, have now received service without paying the "One Grand Demand." National Grid continues to apply the rule to other persons who have not joined in the case.

Discovery in the case indicates that the "Grand Plan" was adopted by National Grid in 2004 without public notice and without filing revised tariffs. As a result, the rules were not subject to objection by consumer groups and there was no PSC order approving the new conditions for service before they were implemented.
On November 20, 2007, National Grid filed its response to the amended petition.

On November 30, 2007 PULP filed its reply for the petitioners.

For more information, see PULP's web page on the National Grid "Grand Plan."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Governor Spitzer Nominates NYISO Executive for PSC Post

First Choice for PSC Chairman Withdraws
Consumer groups supported Governor Spitzer’s first pick for chair of the Public Service Commission, Angela Sparks-Beddoe, a utility executive who served on his transition team. In her work for the utility, she was well aware of inadequacies of the deregulatory approach of the past decade, and she indicated openness to new solutions. See AARP Commends Governor's Choice for Commissioner of Public Service Commission. Importantly, she was aware of and supported consumer concerns for affordable and stable pricing, and had a track record of personal concern and action regarding the needs of low income households. When she was not confirmed during the legislative session, she withdrew.

Consumer Groups Snubbed in Second Choice
Consumer groups, including the 2.5 million member New York AARP, then urged the Governor to nominate another Chairman who also had a demonstrated commitment to consumer concerns. See Governor Spitzer Asked to Name Pro-Consumer PSC Chair. After months of rumors involving possible nominees, including nationally known experts in utility and environmental policy, Governor Spitzer nominated a new candidate for Chairman of the PSC, Garry Brown. Consumer groups were not consulted on the latest nomination, a candidate who for many years has worked for merchant power interests and the New York Independent System Operator, a utility created to privatize wholesale electricity rate setting. According to the Governor's press release
Mr. Brown currently serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the New York Independent System Operator. From 2002 to 2005, Mr. Brown served as Vice President of Strategic Planning within the same company. Mr. Brown worked for Sithe Energies Inc. from 1995 to 2002. While there, he served in several capacities including Manager of Government and Market Relations; he also served on the Board of Directors of the Independent Power Producers of New York. Previously, Mr. Brown served as a Senior Policy Analyst for the New York State Energy Office.
The Role of the State PSC in Overseeing the NYISO and Merchant Power Providers
The NYISO newsletter lauds the nomination, and describes the PSC position
The PSC regulates New York’s electric, gas, steam, water and telecommunications services. It sets rates and ensures that the state’s utilities provide adequate service to New York consumers.
PSC Commissioners serve six-year terms; they are appointed by the Governor and confi rmed by the state Senate. The Chair is selected by the Governor and is the chief executive offi cer of the Department of Public Service, the staff contingent of the PSC.
Not mentioned by the NYISO newsletter article is the role of the PSC in overseeing the NYISO as to certain of its functions under state jurisdiction. Some claim the NYISO is not under PSC jurisdiction, but that is not supported by prior PSC orders. While some NYISO functions are under FERC jurisdiction, the state retained important supervisory powers.

Also, even in matters in which FERC has unquestioned jurisdiction the state PSC intervenes as a party in FERC proceedings involving the NYISO. These FERC proceedings investigate and review NYISO rates, costs, and tariffs, and functioning of the NYISO markets. These cases often involve whether the NYISO organized markets actually are producing the reasonable rates required by the Federal Power Act, and in other matters. See Industrial and Residential Customers Agree: Proposed FERC Rules for Electricity Market Rates are Flawed

In recent years, questions have been raised about the wholesale market sector of the electric industry, for example,
Anti-Consumer Positions Taken by the NYISO
The NYISO in a recent FERC filing opposes refunds to New York consumers of possible overcharges due to market manipulation or malfunction to benefit consumers. See NYISO Opposes Possible Refund of Overcharges Due to Sellers' Market Power.

In another case in which FERC has begun to examine flaws and costs of organized private wholesale markets including the NYISO, the NYISO is opposing more accountability, in part, on the grounds that the NY PSC is provided confidential market data about rates demanded and is performing certain oversight functions. See NYISO comments objecting to proposals for greater accountability. In the same case, the New York PSC filed comments stressing the importance of PSC oversight of NYISO functions:
New York's Public Service Law assigns the NYPSC with the responsibility to ensure that electric corporations, such as the NYISO, furnish safe and adequate service at just and reasonable rates.'' Moreover, we have observed that "the manner in which bids are made, generators are committed, and the performance of generators in meeting those commitments, can and often do have profound impacts on the reliability of electric service in New York State and, ultimately, on retail rates.
NYISO comments in the same case cite the presence of PSC staff, their oversight role, and access of certain PSC staff to secret NYISO data on prices demanded by sellers, which could reveal withholding or market gaming tactics used to drive prices up, as reasons for FERC not to require greater accountability.

FDR Appointed a Market Insider
The PSC has an important role to play in the supervision of merchant power producers and the NYISO, all of which are New York electric companies that must operate in the public interest. The PSC chair will have the power to examine whether the lightly regulated utilities and the NYISO in which prices are privately set are functioning in the public interest. Despite the apparent lack of consumer-friendly credentials, perhaps the latest nomination will turn out to be analogous to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pick of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. as Chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission in 1932, in the aftermath of egregious stock market manipulation scandals and the stock market crash.

An SEC history shows FDR's selection of person attuned to the manipulation of markets turned out to be a very good pick:
while some pushed for the appointment of progressive reformers to the Commission, FDR confounded partisans by appointing Joseph P. Kennedy one of the SEC's first five Commissioners and insisting that the group designate Kennedy as Chairman. Kennedy had profited handsomely from financial manipulation, but he understood keenly the need to balance the interests of the people with the imperatives of the financial markets.
So, based on the experience of FDR’s pick of Joseph Kennedy, perhaps Governor Spitzer's nomination of an electricity market insider who was a merchant power and NYISO executive to lead the PSC will result in more robust and fearless supervision of the NYISO by the PSC, a crackdown on hockeystick bidding, investigation of possible market gaming by NYISO market participants, a more pro consumer tilt in PSC filings at FERC, meaningful state oversight and action to limit the ever rising costs of the NYISO itself, less blind faith in failed NYISO markets, rejection of further market nostrums, and transparency in energy planning to deal with the state’s future energy needs and future energy costs.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Veto Clouds New York's HEAP Program: More than 200,000 Households May Be Affected

The federal LIHEAP program makes "block grants" to the states for use in their home energy assistance programs, including New York's HEAP program. Because of the combination of a large population and a cold climate, New York state receives the nation's largest LIHEAP allocation. In the 2006 - 2007 HEAP year, New York issued more than one million HEAP benefits to needy low income households: 844,530 households received a regular HEAP benefit and 163,007 received an additional emergency grant.

Most of the "regular" and "emergency" HEAP funds are used by New York State to assist eligible household with their immediate home energy costs incurred for the current winter. They are not designed to pay old utility bills accrued from past years.

Under Section 97 of the New York Social Services Law, 15% of the LIHEAP funds received by the state are required to "be used for low-cost residential weatherization or other energy-related home repair for low-income households...." Further, "[n]o less than ten percent of the funds available to New York state under the federal low-income home energy assistance program shall be allocated to the division of housing and community renewal for its weatherization assistance program and shall be expended as provided in the annual New York state weatherization plan."

The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) administers the LIHEAP funds and programs, and the New York State Department of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) oversees the program in New York State. New York announced the opening of the winter 2007 - 2008 HEAP program on November 1, 2007. The program operates until the federal funds are depleted.

Even though the 2008 federal fiscal year began October 1, 2007, the amount of federal funding for the current winter's program is not yet certain.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized up to $5.1 billion for LIHEAP but appropriations have not approached even half that level. President Bush proposed a budget for 2007 - 2008 that would cut the LIHEAP program 17.6% from last year's level, from $2.16 billion to $1.78 billion.

In contrast, if the LIHEAP program had simply kept up with the general level of inflation since it began in 1981, the funding level would be $4.2 billion. The House of Representatives proposed to increase the 2008 program to $2.66 billion, but subsequently a lower House-Senate compromise funding level was reached at $2.42 billion.

President Bush on November 13, 2007 vetoed the federal HHS budget bill containing a $2.42 billion appropriation for LIHEAP, saying "it spends too much." See Bush Veto Hits Heating Bill Aid Program for Poor.

According to a November 8, 2007 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the reduced level of funding proposed by the President in his budget for the LIHEAP program would result in $76.4 million less for New York's HEAP program. As a consequence, CBPP estimates that approximately 207,900 fewer New York households would receive assistance. Also, under the President's proposed reduction in funding, New York state's low-income weatherization programs would face reductions of at least $7.6 million in 2008.

With expected 2007-2008 winter heating costs rising by more than 10%, more LIHEAP funding, not less, is needed to assist households in making this winter's energy burdens more affordable, and for the longer range cost effective weatherization programs that reduce future energy burdens of low-income households by making their homes more efficient.

For more information about the New York HEAP program see PULP's Winter Extra.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

NYISO Opposes Possible Refund of Overcharges Due to Sellers' Market Power

New York consumers pay about one billion dollars a year in passed through NYISO capacity charges paid to owners of existing power plants, in addition to high prices for the energy actually produced. These charges are intended to provide market signals that would entice new entrants to provide the additional power needed in the future. According to Cornell professor Tim Mount, this strategy has been ineffective and has not had the desired results:
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being paid through the capacity market to the owners of installed generating capacity to supplement their earnings in the wholesale market. The main accomplishment of these extra payments is to increase the market value of existing generating capacity. There is no obligation placed on generators to build new capacity when and where it is needed.
* * * *
the LICAP market has been an expensive and an ineffective way to maintain generation adequacy. In 2005 and 2006, customers paid over $1 billion/year in the LICAP market in NYC and merchant investors were still reluctant to commit to specific in-service dates for new generating units that have already received licenses for construction. This amount of money is enough to finance over 12,000 MW of new peaking capacity at a capital cost of $80/kW/Year (from Table A1 in the Appendix), and this amount of additional capacity would more than double the installed generating capacity in NYC.
See Investment Performance in Deregulated Markets for Electricity: A Case Study of New York State

The NYISO sometimes claims that its capacity markets have led to construction of new power plants. Actually, it is the dismal failure of NYISO capacity markets to function as intended that led the state, through the Power Authority, LIPA, and Con Edison to step in to get plants built. See City Bar Committee Issues Report on Electricity Regulation in New York, PULP Network Feb. 9, 2007. The response of the marketeers has been that the capacity payments to existing power plant owners need to be even higher to induce private sector investment, and that a revised capacity market design is needed. See Looking for the “Voom”: A Rebuttal to Dr. Hogan’s “Acting in Time: Regulating Wholesale Electricity Markets,” by Robert McCullough, analogizing the marketeers’ perennial new market solutions to the “Cat in the Hat.”

Making matters even worse, the 2006 NYISO capacity market allegedly was manipulated by seller(s) withholding of capacity to drive prices up to the limit of a price ceiling. The addition of new power plants had no effect on the price that was charged. See Did Electricity Market Manipulation Cost New York Consumers $157 Million in the Summer of 2006?, PULP Network, March 21, 2007. This appears to have been recognized by Con Edison, which bought much of the capacity and apparently passed the cost through to customers without meaningful oversight, via its "Market Supply Charge."

Con Edison, the PSC, the NYISO and others made no request to FERC for a refund of excessive charges imposed in 2006. (In the Ninth Circuit, the court of appeals has required FERC to consider retroactive revision of unfiled market rates when markets were manipulated and conditions were not competitive. See U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Electricity Market Rate Refund Case, PULP Network, September 25, 2007).

Instead of seeking correction of the unreasonable, excessive rates, the New York utilities reached an agreement with the NYISO to change the capacity market rules and price cap going forward, in an effort to limit the extent of future price gouging in 2007. In a March 6, 2007 order, however, FERC rejected that proposed deal to revise future NYISO capacity market auction rules, and directed parties to enter into settlement talks. FERC also established a "refund effective date" going forward, making refunds a possibility -- at least with respect to the exercise of market power in future capacity market auctions.

When the confidential talks failed to produce a new agreement, the merchant power producers proposed that a "paper hearing" be held, and they were supported in their request by the NYISO.

Other parties -- New York Transmission Owners; Consolidated Edison Solutions, Inc.; Multiple Intervenors, the New York State Consumer Protection Board, Consumer Power Advocates; New York State Public Service Commission; and the New York Association of Public Power -- argued that
a trial-type evidentiary hearing is required to investigate, e.g., allegations of economic withholding,[ ] and the need for and effectiveness of market mitigation measures and the cost support for such measures.[ ] A trial-type evidentiary hearing is also favored by these parties because “the issues . . . are extremely complex and controversial and involve significant disagreements over several material facts, such as . . . economic withholding . . . the ability of competition to produce just and reasonable prices, and what price level is necessary to meet New York’s standard for the adequacy of electric facilities.
In a July 6, 2007 Order Establishing Paper Hearing and Referring Certain Matters for Investigation, FERC rejected the request for a full evidentiary hearing with cross examination that might have more fully aired the issues concerning sellers' behavior in the NYISO markets, and accepted the proposal of the Independent Power Producers and the NYISO for a "paper hearing."

In typical FERC fashion, noting that a Justice Department investigation of the alleged 2006 market manipulation was now underway, (see Justice Department Investigating NY Energy Markets, PULP Network, June 13, 2007), FERC belatedly referred the issue of possible market manipulation in 2006 to its enforcement division.

(FERC's "enforcement" of anti manipulation laws seems mainly concentrated on violations of bankrupt entities like Enron and Ameranth, self-reported violations, or where other agencies have stepped in to investigate public allegations of market manipulation allowed by FERC's lax enforcement of the federal utility consumer protection laws).

On October 4, 2007, the NYISO made a compliance filing arguing, as did the beneficiaries of California market manipulation in the Ninth Circuit cases, that refunds for the benefit of consumers would upset the expectations of sellers and the reputation of the NYISO markets:
Although there may be a need to change market rules, that need should be balanced with the need for market certainty. Bids and offers in the voluntary ICAP auctions were made with a certain set of expectations, which cannot be altered after the fact. Ordering refunds and changing market outcomes after the fact may have a deleterious influence on perceptions of market credibility and regulatory uncertainty.
Thus, the NYISO opposes a meaningful consumer remedy -- refund of excessive charges -- on the ground that it might harm the public perception of its markets. The Federal Power Act, however, was intended by Congress to protect consumers, not those who benefit from market manipulation.

Wholesale electricity sellers with "market-based rates" and the NYISO have departed from the statutory scheme. They should not be heard to complain about "market certainty" and "contract sanctity" and the "filed rate doctrine" when their rate schedules were never properly filed. The Federal Power Act requires all rates to be just and reasonable, and subject to review by FERC before they are charged. Unfiled rates, such as those demanded and charged in the ICAP auctions, when challenged, should be subject to subsequent plenary review by FERC and the judiciary for reasonableness. Sellers who do not file their rates in advance, and who choose to participate in flawed NYISO markets, do so at their peril.

The failure of the NYISO, the PSC, FERC, and the courts to police wholesale market rates for electricity and capacity may be one reason why electricity rates in the states that restructured their electricity industry to rely more on federal wholesale markets are now higher. See Competitively Priced Electricity Costs More, Studies Show, NY Times, Nov. 6, 2007. See also, New York Restructuring: It Was About Price, PULP Network, October 4, 2007

Monday, November 05, 2007

PULP Winter Extra Newsletter Highlights New York's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program

PULP has issued its annual online PULP News "Winter Extra" covering details of the New York Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). Last year, the program provided "Regular HEAP" benefits to 844,530 low income households and "Emergency HEAP" benefits to 163,007 households experiencing home energy crises.

The program opened November 1, 2007 and will close in the spring when funds are exhausted.The HEAP program in New York operates only to the extent federal funds are available, i.e., the state does not supplement it directly.

The federal funding level for the 2007 - 2008 LIHEAP program has not been resolved, even though the federal fiscal year began October 1. On an interim basis, the program has been continued at last year's level of $2.16 Billion. President Bush proposes cutting the program by 18%, to $1.78 Billion, while congress has proposed modest increases.

If federal LIHEAP funding had kept pace with funding since 1981, the program would be funded today at a $4.2 Billion level. When the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was enacted, LIHEAP was authorized at a $5.1 Billion level, in recognition that energy costs are rising faster than general inflation. These rising energy costs are particularly harmful to low income households, whose incomes have not risen along with general inflation rates. See The Increasing Burden of Energy Costs on Low-income Consumers, American Gas Association, September 26, 2007

It is likely that eventual appropriations for 2007 - 2008 will be in the range of half the amount authorized, and the program will only serve a fraction of the eligible households. Due to the inadequate federal appropriations, the New York HEAP program closes when funds are exhausted. Some states appropriate state funds to supplement HEAP but New York has not, with the exception of the winter of 2005 - 2006 when a conditional appropriation was made.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reduced Rate Wireless Lifeline Service Now Available in New York

Nextel Advertises Lifeline Rates
PULP has noticed that for the first time Nextel has begun advertising a Lifeline and Link-Up service in the Capital Region. While the company received its authorization to offer Link-Up/Lifeline in New York from the FCC in August 2004 (as part of its designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier, or ETC, in several states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia), the only surprise is the lag time.

According to the Nextel website, eligible Lifeline customers in New York can save up to $13.50 per month off of a $29.99 service plan. Those who live on Tribal Lands may only need to pay $1.75 per month for the same service.

Four Wireless Providers in New York Must Offer a Lifeline Rate for Low Income Consumers
Nextel is not alone. In fact, American Cellular, Dobson Cellular (soon to be part of AT&T), Nextel Partners, and Sprint PCS have all received their ETC status in New York. Nextel appears to be the first of the group to actually advertise its Lifeline service in New York.

In order to receive its ETC designation, Nextel and the other companies demonstrated to the FCC:

(1) That the FCC had authority to consider its petitions because the state commissions claimed that they lacked jurisdiction. In fact, a letter was sent by the PSC general counsel’s office to the FCC stating that New York lacks jurisdiction over the Nextel petition. Nextel Lifeline PSC Letter.

(2) That it offers, or will offer upon designation as an ETC, the services supported by the federal universal service mechanism. Nextel also certified that, in compliance with the FCC’s Rules, it will make available and advertise Lifeline and Link-Up services to qualifying low-income consumers. Three years later, the advertising has begun, but Nextel had pledged that it was ready to offer these services in 2004.

Consumer Protections
Nextel also promised the FCC that it would follow the CTIA Consumer Code and the commitments laid out in the FCC’s Virginia Cellular Order, including:

(a) annual reporting of progress towards build-out plans, unfulfilled service requests, and complaints per 1,000 handsets;
(b) specific commitments to provide service to requesting customers in the area for which it is designated, including those areas outside existing network coverage; and
(c) specific commitments to construct new cell sites in areas outside its network coverage.

The CTIA Code is not an adequate substitute for the Telephone Fair Practices Act (“TFPA”) consumer protections expected by telephone consumers. See PULP Testimony to NYS Assembly.

Nextel went on to pledge to the FCC: (1) that it offers and will continue to implement E-911 access; (2) that it will comply with any minimum usage requirements required by applicable law (Nextel also stated that local usage is included in all of its calling plans); (3) that it will provide access to interexchange services, and is not required to offer equal access to those services; (4) that it offers the supported services using either its own facilities or a combination of its own facilities and resale of another carrier’s services (Nextel stated that it intends to provide the supported services using its existing network infrastructure); and (5) that it is committed to specific methods to advertise the availability of the supported services and the charges for the services using media of general distribution.

Limited Services Available With Wireless Lifeline
So, what does reduced rate wireless Lifeline service include in addition to savings of $13.50 per month? On Nextel’s Lifeline application form, it states that the Lifeline service itself includes 200 anytime minutes and unlimited night and weekend minutes, which may be used for local or long-distance calls. Lifeline service also includes Voice Mail, Call Waiting, Caller ID, Numeric Paging, Roaming, and Three-Way Calling at no additional charge. Lifeline subscribers may also purchase a reduced-cost Lifeline phone. Nextel Lifeline Application

There are some limitations, however. The application also states that Lifeline service is available in limited (but, unidentified) geographic areas and is only available for one wireline or wireless phone line per household. In addition, data services and other enhanced services or features, international long distance, and access to “900” numbers are not available to Lifeline subscribers. Another limitation is that Lifeline service plan minutes are only available for calls within Sprint Nextel coverage areas

Further, some customers may be charged a service deposit based on the applicant’s credit history. The service deposit may be avoided, however, by choosing an account spending limit (“ASL”) of $75 or less.

Access to emergency services by dialing 911 is not subject to any account usage limitation. The Nextel website failed to mention that wireless E-911 is not available in all geographic areas.

As for Link-Up, Nextel will pay one-half of the $36 service activation fee. Eligible residents of Tribal lands may receive an additional credit of up to $70 to cover 100% of the service activation or installation charges. Applicants may also receive a deferred schedule (of up to one year) for payment of the discounted charges for commencing service.

Open Questions
Will wireless Lifeline increase Lifeline enrollment, which has fallen in recent years? Will landline Lifeline customers switch to take advantage of the mobility benefits or will they reject wireless Lifeline due to the E-911 or service availability gaps? Will the New York PSC or the State Legislature extend state TFPA telephone consumer protections to users of wireless phones now that they are becoming substitutes for conventional landline service? Stay tuned.

-- Lou Manuta
Staff Attorney

Saturday, October 20, 2007

PSC Asked to Investigate Grid's "Grand Plan"

Grid's "Grand Plan"
National Grid is withholding service to applicants who owe money for service to closed accounts if a prior written payment agreement on the old account was not paid in full when the account was closed. The utility has been insisting upon an up front payment of $1,000 ("one grand"), or the entire balance owed if the amount is less than one grand, and has been refusing to negotiate for a lower amount based on the applicant's ability to pay. See New Barrier to Utility Service: National Grid's "One Grand" Demand, PULP Network October 2, 2007.

As a result, low income applicants for utility service are unable to meet the impossible demands of National Grid and live in dark homes, sometimes for weeks, without utility service, increasing the risk of loss of life. See Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low-Income Households See also, Mom sought state help before fatal fire, describing recent Pennsylvania deaths while utility service was off.

This is squarely in conflict with the state legislature's declaration in the Home Energy Fair Practices Act ("HEFPA") Section 30 that residential service is to be provided by the state's utilities without unreasonable qualifications and without lengthy delays. HEFPA Section 31 requires applicants for service who owe the utility for prior service to closed accounts to be given the opportunity to repay "any amounts" owed for service to a prior account in a deferred payment plan, with a maximum down payment of half the amount due or the cost of three months' service, whichever is less. Further, HEFPA Section 37 requires that all deferred payment plans must be "fair and equitable" and negotiable based on the customer's financial circumstances, and HEFPA Section 43 gives authority to the department of public service staff to resolve disputes over the appropriate terms of repayment plans.

Petition Asks PSC for Relief
On behalf of applicants denied utility service by National Grid under its "Grand Plan" (as the company names it in a recent denial notice) PULP petitioned the state Public Service Commission on October 17, 2007, to investigate the practices of the utility. The petition seeks an interim order directing a halt to the practice of demanding large payments as a condition of service, pending completion of an investigation and conclusion of the case. The petition asks for a one-Commissioner order granting interim relief pending full action by the Commission.

In addition to interim relief, the petition seeks an investigation by the PSC, a declaration that the challenged practices are unlawful, remedial relief for applicants who have been denied since implementation of the "Grand Plan," and a rate reduction if the evidence shows systematic denial or delay of service to applicants based on unreasonable and unlawful conditions. The relief requested includes a minor $25 per day payment to wrongfully denied applicants. That remedy has not been adjusted for inflation since 1981.

Bad Advice From Grid: Ask Welfare to Pay Old Bills for Accounts Closed More than Four Months Ago
Instead of providing service, National Grid has been telling applicants who lack the "grand" demanded for service to apply for welfare assistance.

The state welfare assistance program for utility customers now contained in Section 131-s of the Social Services Law was enacted together with the Home Energy Fair Practices Act in Chapter 895 of the Laws of 1981. It will cover utility arrears for a needy person not now on public assistance, and can provide a loan if the person's income is above the welfare income eligibility levels. The program will only pay an amount equal to the utility bills for the four months immediately preceding the month of application. Upon receiving notice of that payment, Section 65-b of the Public Service Law requires the utility to provide service, even if the four-month amount is less than the total owed.

A person who has not had utility bills for an account in their name in the past four months can be denied the welfare assistance. The welfare scheme simply was never intended to pay old bills for prior service to a closed account, because the HEFPA changes assured that an alternative payment arrangement is available under the Public Service Law to the applicant with arrears for service to a prior account. HEFPA requires the utility to offer a DPA to an applicant who owes money from a prior closed account, and thus the welfare offices may deny aid on the theory (if not the reality) that a payment agreement with the utility should be available to the applicant as an alternative to public assistance.

In addition, the federally funded HEAP crisis assistance program provides emergency benefits only in situations where the applicant for HEAP is the "customer of record" with an energy vendor. An applicant for utility service is not a customer.

As a result of Grid's "Grand Plan," utility service to low income applicants and their households is denied or delayed because they are unable to pay the large up-front amounts insisted upon by Grid as a condition for service, and they cannot receive public assistance. In some situations, another household member may be able to apply for and receive service, but this is not always possible, for example, when there is no other adult in the household.

National Grid apparently claims that despite HEFPA Section 31, which establishes a deferred payment plan option for applicants to repay "any amounts due for service to a prior account in his or her name," it can refuse to offer a plan if the applicant had defaulted on a prior payment plan when the prior account was closed. Section 31, however, does not limit the availability of a deferred payment plan.

In 1981, when HEFPA and the companion SSL 131-s welfare program were enacted the PSC Chairman submitted a memorandum in support recognizing that the new safety net of HEFPA combined with the limited public assistance program was designed to overrule prior requirements of full arrears payment as a condition of service. Also, in a report, the PSC Chairman observed that HEFPA had removed "unrealistic restrictions on obtaining utility service." The statutory deferred payment provisions coupled with the limitation of welfare assistance to the most recent four months, along with other HEFPA provisions such as a prohibition on termination of service for stale bills, encouraged utilities not to let customers unable to pay fall far behind and accrue large arrears. Instead, utilities could pursue termination of service for arrears that would be within the scope of the four-month welfare payment. Also, such early action might identify needs for referral to weatherization services or other social services needed by the household to help manage their bills.

Grid's referral of denied applicants to welfare offices abuses the welfare system and taxpayers because the welfare program was intended to be a last resort and was never designed to aid the company in collecting old bills and bad debt from prior closed accounts. Indeed, when utility rates are set by the PSC, the rate level is set so as to make a reasonable allowance for bad debt and uncollectibles.

Emergency HEAP Situation Unclear
The federally funded Home Energy Assistance Program ("HEAP") begins November 1, 2007. The HEAP program is inadequately funded by the federal government, is not supplemented by New York State, and closes in the Spring when federal funds are exhausted.

New York's HEAP Plan contains a "crisis assistance" component called "Emergency HEAP" to resolve the home energy crises of individuals who meet all income eligibility standards and other program requirements. Because deferred payment plans should be available under HEFPA to persons now being denied utility service under the National Grid "Grand Plan" due to old bills from long closed accounts, however, there really should be no "emergency" or "crisis" to consider addressing with Emergency HEAP or any other welfare program.

Further, state OTDA regulation 18 NYCRR 393.4(d)(1) contains a requirement that limits Emergency HEAP payments to those who are the "customer of record" with "an account in their name with an energy vendor." Persons denied utility service by National Grid under the "Grand Plan" are not the "customer of record" as defined under the welfare regulations cited above, because they do not now have an account in their name. Also, a person denied utility service under the "Grand Plan" is an "applicant" and not a "customer" as defined in the regulations of the Public Service Commission at 16 NYCRR 11.2(a)(2).

It is possible that some counties administering the 100% federally funded HEAP program may respond sympathetically to a person denied utility service by National Grid by proffering an Emergency HEAP payment. Under the vendor agreements negotiated between the utilities and OTDA, however, utility vendors are given the option to refuse an Emergency HEAP payment. As a result, it is not clear whether Emergency HEAP grants could solve the problem. Moreover, the limited funds available under the federal LIHEAA program should be conserved to meet this winter's home heating needs, not to help utilities collect bad debt for years past which can be addressed with a deferred payment plan.

Insensitivity to Low Income Customer Predicaments
Some of the applicants denied service under the "Grand Plan" owe large amounts for closed accounts for unaffordable natural gas service. National Grid introduced more volatile natural gas rates with unpredictable spikes in recent years. These often cannot be absorbed by low income customers, who live from check to check and often lack savings. Many people may have lost service and closed accounts, perhaps moving to new situations with utilities included. Now, sometimes years later,when their situations change and they need service again, they cannot obtain it because of Grid's "Grand Plan." Compounding the problem, National Grid
  • Lacks meaningful low income rate plans such as those of other National Grid companies in Massachusetts to make service more affordable
  • Closed all its New York walk-in customer service offices where customers could negotiate payment agreements
  • Reduced its staff who provide services to persons with payment difficulties
  • Appears not to have empowered its representatives to negotiate fair and equitable payment agreements based on financial circumstances of applicants
  • Withheld service in some instances without providing notices of possible commission remedies
  • Misadvises people regarding the availability of public assistance and
  • Is reverting to harsh pre-HEFPA tactics that endanger the public.
HEFPA History
Before the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA) was enacted, New York's utilities had harsh policies that often led to hardship, sometimes with tragic consequences. See PULP's HEFPA History web page. In 1981 HEFPA required the provision of service to applicants who owe the company money if they agree to pay back the arrears through a deferred payment agreement. There is no bar to a new agreement or disqualification of applicants who had an unpaid DPA that was terminated when their old account was terminated and a final bill was rendered for all outstanding charges.

HEFPA does allow a current customer's service to be terminated if he defaults on a signed payment agreement. If the customer cannot afford to pay the arrears, and is not eligible for a renegotiated payment plan based on a change of financial circumstances. It is then that he may be able to obtain a 4-month welfare payment, to forestall the termination or restore recently terminated service. Also, if a current customer has been terminated for nonpayment in the past six months, the utility can require a deposit. In this manner, HEFPA balanced the rights of applicants and utilities in a way that favors the timely provision of service to all residential applicants, even those who owe the company for past service to previously closed accounts.

Implications for the Current Long Term Rate Plan
National Grid is enjoying the benefits of a lengthy rate plan in which it can keep the benefits of improved practices, cost reductions, and revenue enhancements, instead of cost savings or increased revenue being taken into account through more frequent recalibration of rates. The petition alleges that National Grid's "Grand Plan" is a means to enhance revenue during the long-term rate plan at the expense of needy applicants for service, in violation of the expectation that the utility would extend service to applicants in accordance with law, and asks the PSC to make a downward rate adjustment.

DPS Staff Acquiscence to Grid's "Grand Plan"
Some staff of the Department of Public Service (DPS), which is overseen by the PSC, apparently have supported implementation of Grid's "Grand Plan," as in the case of National Grid's initiation of harsh and illegal deposit policies several years ago. The Public Service Commission, however, is not bound by informal acquiescence of any DPS Staff to a utility rule or practice that has been changed informally without filing new tariffs approved by the Commission. As the Commission stated in the deposit case
The record suggests that the company disclosed its plan *** to the Department and was never specifically told it could be illegal; the record also shows that the company never specifically asked the Department if the policy was legal. In arguing that the company had good cause to deny utility service to residential customers under the *** policy, Niagara Mohawk and Staff rely on the Department's silence, which, in our view, is not a strong position from which to argue good faith or due diligence.
Thus, even though the staff of the utility regulator have gone along with a utility's practices, the PSC itself is not bound by their acquiescence.

Withholding of Service Without Notice?
In some instances denied applicants do not have written notices of denial of service, which is required by law. Notice must include a detailed statement of the reason for denial, a precise statement of what must be done to qualify for service, and notice of the PSC Hotline number, 1-800-342-3355. These notices must be provided if service is not provided within three days of an application

Denied Applicants may Join in Petitioning the Commission
Individuals denied service under the National Grid "Grand Plan" have received service after joining in the proceeding. For further information and possible intervention in the case contact PULP at 1.800.255.7857.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lou Manuta Joins PULP Staff

PULP is pleased to announce that Louis Manuta, Esq. recently joined our staff. Lou has been a practicing attorney and legal editor since 1989 when he graduated from the National Law Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He relocated to New York's capital region in 1995 after several years in Washington, DC covering local loop, wireless, and satellite communications issues before the Federal Communications Commission.

Immediately prior to joining PULP, Lou was an attorney in the telecommunications practice group at the Herzog Law Firm in Albany, NY. Previously, Lou was Vice President-Regulatory Counsel for the NYS Telecommunications Association where he was responsible for advising, coordinating, and representing telecommunications industry positions before State and Federal regulatory agencies and other external organizations, and he provided counsel to member companies regarding matters affecting their business operations. He joined NYSTA in August 1998 as the Director -- Regulatory Policy and was named Vice President in 2003.

Lou has been a member of the New York State Bar and the Federal Communications Bar Association since 1990. He has represented clients before the Public Service Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, other state agencies, and in the federal and state courts.

Lou was born and raised on Long Island and received his Bachelors Degree Magna Cum Laude in Communications/Political Studies from Adelphi University.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

New York Restructuring: It Was About Price

New Yorkers Pay More for Electricity
Today, New York electric consumers pay more than those in states that continued conventional state utility regulation. More troubling, the gap between New York and the states that did not drink the restructuring Kool-Aid is widening, making New York less competitive in the national economy.

This is illustrated in an October 1, 2007 report by Marilyn Showalter, for Power in the Public Interest. See Electricity Price Trends in New York Compared to Trends in Price-regulated States, based on EIA data through June 2007.

Marilyn Showalter is a former Chair of the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC) and former President of NARUC, the national association of state utility regulators. She also served as chief clerk of the Washington State House of Representatives and as legal counsel to the governor of Washington. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Her report shows how New York customers are paying far more for electricity than customers in states that did not try to deregulate. In the traditionally regulated states, utilities did not sell their power plants and thus they are less dependent on buying energy in essentially deregulated federal wholesale markets.

A New York Times article, A New Push to Regulate Power Costs, also summarized the national trend: electricity prices in states that adhered to the deregulation model, like New York, are not only higher than they were before the experiment began, but also higher in relation to the majority of states that did not follow their example.

The First Goal of New York's Restructuring was Lower Retail Prices
Confronted with this reality - prices did not go down with deregulation, and the price gap between New York and other states is widening - a former New York PSC Chairman was recently quoted as saying lower prices are not the only goal of deregulation. See Push on for Energy Policy: 3 Former Heads of PSC Tell Independent Power Producers a State Plan Is Needed.

It is true that other goals were stated when the PSC adopted its "vision" of "unbundling" and deregulating wholesale and retail generation service in 1996, (see below), but the number one goal was to reduce New York electricity prices that were high in relation to other states
Market forces overall are expected to produce, over time, rates that will be lower than they would be under a regulated environment. As we move toward competition, our expectation is that rates overall will be reduced.
Opinion 96-12 at p. 26. It was this "vision order" that paved the way for the New York PSC and utilities to implement restructuring by requiring the utilities to file plans to conform with the "vision." PULP's opposition to divestiture and deregulation of new providers was not heeded. Subsequently, the legislature undid the PSC effort to deregulate new retail gas and electric companies.

After most of the utilities agreed to restructure, and as ownership of their power plants was being shifted to new wholesale utilities who would sell at market rates allowed by FERC, the 1998 State Energy Plan also stated an expectation that the rate differential between New York and other states would narrow:
Future electric generation prices should move closer to the national average since over time competition will likely eliminate most market distortions, leaving only regional anomalies for state-to-state price differences. Thus, changes in generation prices should have no more impact on New York's competitive position than comparable changes in other states.
Now, however the situation is worse. The gap between New York electricity prices and those of other conventionally regulated states is widening.

No state deregulated electricity like New York did since the demise of Enron in 2001 drew attention to the flawed scheme of deregulated federal wholesale markets. Since then, a number of states halted their plans to deregulate. Other states that had enacted laws requiring divestiture of power plants, like Connecticut, have recently passed new laws to authorize utilities to build or acquire power plants as a way to bring more of the generation costs of electric service back under state regulation. This reduces the need to buy electricity at wholesale market prices inflated by design and gaming.

Rate Differences Within New York: Customers of a Vertically Integrated Utility Did Best
Within New York state, customers of the utilities that most enthusiastically implemented the PSC vision saw their bills rise and become unpredictable. In contrast, residential customers of RG&E, a utility that kept most of its power plants, and thus remains the most traditionally regulated, enjoy the lowest bills. See Excelsior! Con Edison Residential Rates Spike (Again).

There is no legal barrier that prevents a utility from building a power plant, as Con Edison did with its East River steam/electric "repowering" project several years ago. RG&E has announced plans to retire an old coal plant and build a new 330 MW plant, and to improve several of its old hydro plants, raising their output by 9 MW. Deregulation proponents are now asking the PSC to require divestiture or prevent RG&E from repowering old power plants, so customers of that utility too would have to buy electricity at inflated prices established in the deregulated federal markets.

The New York PSC adopted a policy to flow NYISO spot market rates through to all customers, eventually, starting first with the largest customers. The results for industrial customers in the PPI Report show how this has caused their rates to soar as the policy was implemented. Again, this is due to faulty design and possible gaming of the spot markets, in which sellers with energy that costs less to produce can always get paid the top dollar demanded, which may be for the most costly, least efficient plant.

It's Market Design, Not Gas Prices
In response to Marilyn Showalter's study, deregulation proponents - mainly the deregulated wholesale utilities and traders - claim New York's rising electricity prices are simply tracking previously unanticipated increases in prices for natural gas and oil. See Energy Deregulation Too Costly, Study Shows New Yorkers Pay More for Electricity Now than under Regulated System, Says Advocacy Group Director.

Those fuels, however, only account for about 34% of New York's electricity production. According to NYSERDA data, the majority of New York's electricity supply is from sources that produce electricity at costs far lower than natural gas or oil fired power plants. This includes
  • 25% from nuclear,
  • 14% from hydro,12% from coal,
  • 13% imported (much of which is Canadian hydro or produced from coal in other states)
Yet, New York prices are paralleling increases in natural gas prices is due to defective NYISO spot markets, where a 20% "tail" of natural gas in many hours wags the entire "dog" of prices for all generators, including those less costly to operate.

Sellers of lower cost energy receive the maximum clearing prices set in the NYISO markets for much more expensive power plants. As a result, with deregulation, the benefit of low cost electricity shifted from New York's consumers to producers and traders.

Industrial customers, once the major "consumer" supporter of deregulation, are defecting as the prices they pay in the deregulated states go up. See Industrial and Residential Customers Agree: Proposed FERC Rules for Electricity Market Rates are Flawed. It is now mainly the producers and traders who continue to bombard the public and press with spurious claims of that deregulation is succeeding. It is, for them.

Other Goals
As mentioned above, lower price was the first goal of deregulation, and there were other objectives. New York has not done so well on the other restructuring goals, either. The other goals articulated by the New York PSC when it adopted the "vision" promoted by Enron were
Background: The "Vision" of Electricity Deregulation
In 1996 the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) adopted policies favoring electricity price deregulation. The major trade off for utilities was that in exchange for selling their power plants to new owners, as desired by the PSC, the utilities were allowed to form holding companies and to have long term "performance" rate plans. Rates would be set at a "macro" level rather than based on detailed scrutiny of costs, and the companies could retain savings achieved by cost cutting in operations. The PSC approved "rate/restructuring" agreements for each utility. In November 1999, the New York ISO (NYISO) was formed to create a FERC-approved "organized" market for spot market sales and purchases. Now the majority of wholesale energy in the state is sold or influenced by prices in that essentially deregulated market. See NYISO Costs Skyrocket, Benefits Questioned.

In 2004, the PSC still believed in a transition to a situation where eventually all customers would face spot market pricing:
Based on the current state of the competitiveness of the electric market, it is our view that, for the largest commercial and industrial customers, their commodity rates should reflect spot markets and existing hedges should be allowed to expire without being renewed. We will continue to monitor the state of the market for other customer classes and as the markets continue to mature, we expect that the hedges providing price volatility protection for these customers will be allowed to expire as well.
Statement of Policy on Further Steps Toward Competition in Retail Energy Markets, Aug. 25, 2004.

Utility consumer advocates generally oppose reliance on spot market pricing:
The Default Service Provider shall not simply pass through wholesale spot market rates for the energy or gas commodity portion of Default Service, and shall be required to take prudent measures to provide least cost service and assure long term rate stability, through various means including but not limited to competitive bid, bilateral contract, or provider-owned generation or supplies
NASUCA Resolution on Competitive Provision of Electricity and Natural Gas, 2001.

In 2006 the New York PSC commenced a new case to consider how retail utilities should acquire electricity and natural gas for their customers. That case is underway. Meanwhile, some New York utilities are continuing to implement plans adopted years ago to increase their reliance on short term spot markets to purchase energy for their retail customers in the coming years.

Time for a New Plan
Other states that restructured are considering major changes after the failed experiment with deregulation. See PSC Study: Michigan's Electric Utilities Should Return To Regulated Market Structure. The three former New York PSC commissioners mentioned in the article above were right to call for a new energy planning initiative for New York State. The last state energy plan issued in 2002 relied heavily on a deregulatory approach. See Disconnected Policymakers.

Energy Plan "Updates" to the 2002 plan have been issued by NYSERDA based on information voluntarily provided by industry sources. In its 2006 "update" report, NYSERDA stated
Although Article 6 expired on January 1, 2003, NYSERDA, acting on behalf of the former Energy Planning Board, requested this information on a voluntary basis in an attempt to maintain an accurate and complete record of information and data in anticipation of the future re-authorization of the planning process. As compliance of major energy suppliers with this voluntary request has waned considerably, NYSERDA will cease to request voluntary compliance.
It appears from the statement above that without new statutory authority, NYSERDA may lack the scope of information and tools needed even to assess the situation accurately. There has been no legislative reauthorization of a comprehensive energy planning process for the state.