Thursday, February 21, 2008

National Grid Adds "Consumer Advocates"

National Grid serves approximately 1.5 million electric customers and 540,000 natural gas customers in upstate New York. In February 2008, National Grid sent letters addressed to “Assistance Agencies Colleagues” announcing that the utility hired four new “consumer advocates” for its widespread upstate New York service territory. This could be a positive development for customers and local advocates who have difficulty in negotiation and other dealings with the utility. National Grid was allowed by the PSC to close all of its walk-in customer service offices, so now it primarily deals with customers through remote call centers. This poses difficulties, obviously, for customers without telephones or for whom communication by telephone is difficult, and for local assistance agency staff dealing at a distance with unfamiliar call center personnel.

Under PSC regulations adopted to enforce the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, utilities are required to have internal customer complaint handling procedures, and to make those procedures open and available to the public. Only after these internal utility procedures do not satisfy a customer do the external PSC complaint procedures come into play, which can trigger investigation of complaints by agency staff, formal or informal hearings, and eventual written decision of a dispute by the PSC.

National Grid's filed tariffs on complaint handling do not spell out the utility's internal complaint process; they only say that their "complaint handling procedures . . . are available for inspection at company offices where applications for service may be made in person." As noted above, however, the PSC allowed National Grid to close all of those offices, so there is no convenient public availability of the internal complaint procedures. Also, the National Grid website map has no reference to complaint handling procedures of the company or instructions on how to lodge a complaint.

Now, with the new hires, National Grid will have nine "consumer advocates" to work with customers whose problems are not solved through the call center processes, at least those who are fortunate enough to find their way to a community service agency that will help deal with the company. Even with the additional "consumer advocates", they will be spread thin. For example, one "consumer advocate" serves customers in ten counties and another serves those in nine.

The National Grid letter requests that when an assistance agency is approached by a National Grid customer who has “no available assistance options” they should be referred to the appropriate consumer advocate. For example, there are situations where a customer may be subject to lawful termination of utility service, may lack funds demanded to retain service, may not be eligible for public assistance, may not have a medical emergency, and may not live with another person who could obtain service in their name.

Contacting a "consumer advocate" at the utility may be an avenue for redress for community advocates trying to help National Grid customers at risk of going without essential service, or with complicated disputes. A list of the National Grid "Consumer Advocates", their service areas, and their telephone numbers is also posted at PULP's website.

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