Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Niagara Mohawk's "Self-Imposed Moratorium" on Winter and Cold Weather Terminations of Service

On December 5, 2008, at evidentiary hearings in the current Niagara Mohawk natural gas rate case, National Grid witnesses testified that Niagara Mohawk has a "self-imposed winter moratorium for our elderly, blind and disabled customers." The company relies on its records to check if the customer is "coded" as elderly, blind or disabled. Persons over age 62 are considered to be "elderly." This means that the company is refraining from shutoffs of these customers for nonpayment during the cold weather period ending April 15.

Also, the witnesses testified regarding a new policy not to cut off service to any category of customer for nonpayment when the outdoor temperature is below 32 degrees.

According to the recent NARUC 2008 Individual State Report by the NARUC Consumer Affairs Subcommittee On Collections Data Gathering, combination gas and electric utilities in New York State terminated service in 2007 to more than 193,000 customers as a bill collection action, and standalone natural gas companies terminated service to more than 66,000 New York customers.

Nationally, combination gas and electric companies terminated service to 1,000,354 customers, so New York state contributed more than 19% of the total.

While forbearance by National Grid in cold weather and during the cold weather season for more vulnerable customers is commendable, it is not sufficient merely to postpone service disconnection until warmer weather. See Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low-Income Households. New York State policy, articulated in HEFPA, is to protect the public interest with continuous service, 24/7, twelve months a year.

The New York PSC has no performance standards for measuring and disincenting utility use of service interruption as a collection measure.

The "moratorium" apparently has not affected National Grid's issuance of termination notices. Callers to PULP's hotline have been receiving service termination notices, and we have been referring persons unable to afford payment arrangements to their local HEAP offices. The state income eligibility guidelines for Emergency HEAP grants to resolve heat-related emergencies were increased on January1, 2009.

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