Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Testimony in National Grid Natural Gas Rate Case Urges Low Income Rates and Reform of Utility Termination Practices

On October 27th, PULP submitted expert testimony from Jerrold Oppenheim in the Public Service Commission proceeding examining National Grid’s request to raise natural gas rates in its Niagara Mohawk service territory. Oppenheim stated that the utility’s proposed increase in the delivery charge would prove devastating to low income gas consumers who already are struggling to pay their bills in the current economic environment. Even with a proposed $5 monthly discount to low income customers, Oppenheim estimates that gas bills will increase 22 percent, not including the cost of the gas itself. He included facts from studies showing that more families are having to choose between keeping their homes warm and providing sufficient healthy food for their children.

The low income rate proposal has three elements: (1) to further reduce the low income heating rate through a rate reduction larger than that proposed by the company, from the proposed $5 to the 26 percent reduction employed by National Grid in Massachusetts, the cost of which would be spread across all service classifications; (2) to modify the list of programs which define eligibility for the low income rate and to incorporate automatic enrollment procedures (as employed for Lifeline discount telephone service) into that aspect of program implementation; and (3) to provide a further rate reduction (up to 35 percent) to the low income heating rate for those customers who have the lowest household incomes.

Oppenheim also testified against increases to the minimum charge. The company is requesting to increase its minimum charge for delivery service by 35.96 percent, from $14.71 per month to $20 per month. By raising the minimum charge, the company would make more of the total bill insensitive to consumption, as everyone would need to pay $20 regardless of usage, thus stimulating sales and reducing the cost effectiveness of energy efficiency measures.

The testimony further asks the PSC to conduct proceedings to set performance goals that would measure National Grid's use of service termination as a collection tactic and reduce it. Currently the PSC measures service interruptions due to equipment malfunction and storms, and sets performance goals, but the PSC has no system of performance measurement to address deliberate termination of service, and thus is not measuring whether utilities are meeting the Legislature's goal, established in Section 30 of the Public Service Law, of continued residential service. Information obtained by PULP in the rate case discovery process indicates that National Grid is resorting to service termination more often.

As part of the rate case, the Commission scheduled public statement hearings in Syracuse, Schenectady, and Schodack to hear from interested members of the public.

Syracuse United Neighbors testified on October 28 that the proposed increases will make it impossible for many low income customers to pay their bills, even with the $5 discount, as the proposed increase does not include the increases in the price of the fuel. They added that the increases will result in a jump in terminations, leading to homelessness, candle fires, and possibly people freezing to death. Also, they testified that National Grid’s proposals will do nothing to reduce consumption as funding for energy efficiency measures has been removed from the proceeding by the PSC.

Lou Manuta

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