Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Importance of Continued, Affordable Energy Underscored by Detroit Fire Deaths After Utility Shutoff

Yesterday the AP reported that three persons died in Detroit Michigan in a fire in a home where utility service had been shut off. See 3 die in fire at Detroit home where power was cut, Jeff Karoub, AP, Jan. 5, 2009.
Sobs rang from the Dexter Avenue home where 18-year-old Antonio Allen lost his father this morning, in a fire that also killed his uncle and his uncle's girlfriend.
****Also killed in the 3:30 a.m. blaze ... were Marvin Allen Sr.'s brother, Tyrone Allen, 60, and Tyrone's girlfriend, Lynn Greer, family members said. Allen's nephew, Ronald Gross, 45, awoke to smoke and jumped from a second-story window to escape.

"He had to jump for his life," Detroit Fire Captain Steve Varnas said from the scene, where investigators found the two brothers -- one who used a walker, one who used a cane -- on the first floor and Greer on the second. "He basically didn't know much. He jumped from the second floor and saw the dining room and living room on fire."

Investigators believe faulty interior electrical wiring or space heaters running on an illegal electrical hook-up could have ignited the three-story brick home ....
**** DTE Energy spokesman Scott Simons said the company cut an illegal electric hook-up at the home in May 2009, after gas and electric service registered in Marvin Allen Sr.'s name was cut for non-payment in July 2008.
Tammy Stables Battaglia, 3 Die in Detroit House Fire, Detroit Free Press, January 5, 2010.

Incidents such as this remind us that such tragic events are not uncommon after utility service is shut off and people resort to less safe solutions to meet their energy needs. See Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low Income Households, PULP Network, September 5, 2006; No Electricity: Middletown Residents in Critical Condition from Lantern Fire, PULP Network, October 19, 2008. They underscore the importance of affordable energy, sound assistance programs, and effective regulatory policies to promote continued utility service without interruption.

Today's Albany Times Union reports on the number of utility shutoffs last year for nonpayment of overdue bills and the HEAP program. Larry Rulison, Heat on for HEAP assistance - As more people find it difficult to pay utility bills, requests for state aid are on the rise, Albany Times Union, Dec. 6, 2009.While HEAP assistance and forbearance from shutoffs in cold weather by utilities are important life and hardship saving measures, the total number of shutoffs is unacceptably high. More can be done to effectuate continued utility service as a matter of public health and welfare, which is the state's declared policy in Section 30 of the Public Service Law.

For example, the Public Service Commission should require a tune up of utilities' inadequate low-income rates and programs in order to make bills more affordable for the poor, unemployed, and low-wage workers.

Also, the PSC could stop using utility customer money to subsidize and promote its misguided and strained effort to push utility customers to buy service from unregulated "ESCO" electricity and gas middlemen, when, after a decade of ESCO subsidies, gimmickry and deceptive contracts, most customers have chosen not to do business with them. See ESCOs Propose "Education" of Central Hudson Customers with $500,000 Postcards Touting Utility Choice, PULP Network, December 09, 2009.

In the first eleven months of 2009, 10,445 Central Hudson customers lost service because they could not pay their bills on time. The more than $800,000 collected from Central Hudson customers now required by the PSC to be squandered on unneeded and ineffective ESCO promotion could be much better used to bolster Central Hudson's insufficient low income programs to reduce customer bills and lessen the risk of hardship and tragedies caused by shutoffs and customer resort to unsafe non utility energy.

And, the state could do much more. For example, instead of closing the HEAP program each year when federal funds run out, the state could supplement it and run it year round. See Powerless: Low-Income Households Facing Termination of Service with No Remedies, PULP Network, July 17, 2009. The state could also improve its flawed utility emergency assistance program, for example, by reducing the county share of costs, and removing restrictions that deny aid to those who cannot afford to pay their utility bills. See OTDA Must Relax Its Administrative Restriction on Utility Assistance Loans for Persons with Incomes Above the Public Assistance Level, and OTDA Eases, but Continues, its Administrative Restriction on Assistance to Utility Customers with Incomes Above the Public Assistance Level. For thirty years, the PSC has lagged in developing a reasonable approach to the affordability problem. The state legislature could light a fire under to the PSC and require it to address, through better low income rates and programs, the needs of lower income utility customers to make their bills affordable and to reduce the crushing energy burdens they face, and to report annually on universal service, continued service, and affordability.

The predictable answer is that times are hard and there is no money now for this.

But if the revenue now forgone by the state for electric and gas delivery sales tax breaks to subsidize inefficient retail electric and gas competition - which has ballooned over the past decade from $4 million a year ito $150 million in 2009 - were collected fairly from all energy users, including ESCO customers, the proceeds could be used to better meet the basic needs of the state's neediest people. See ESCO Tax Subsidies: A Hidden Cost of the New York PSC's "Retail Access" Scheme, PULP Network, January 12, 2009. The continued subsidization of synthetic utility "competition" through PSC-required giveaways of utility customer money and utility delivery sales tax breaks are luxuries this state can no longer afford.

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