investiGATE — Left in the Dark: Criticism Surging on National Grid

Recent wind and snow storms have left more than 100,000 Rhode Islanders without power already this month. Of the eight highest storms/weather events to knock out power since tracking began xxx years ago, six of them have occurred in the last seven years, and many of them weren’t hurricane events. National Grid has come under fire recently by asking for rate hikes; they got one last year, and they’re asking for another from the Public Utilities Commission this year.

But not everyone is accepting the hikes. For some, they’re simply unaffordable. “There are people in RI who pay 40% of their incomes toward utilities,” says Camilo Viveiros. He’s the lead georgewileycentercoordinator of the George Wiley Center, a non-profit, grassroots political advocacy group standing up for the rights of our own dispossessed. Some of those rights are utility rights: to make sure all of us have access to our basic needs of water, light, heat and electricity. As it turns out, Massachusetts and RI both rank in the top five for highest energy costs nationwide.

Part of what the George Wiley Center is pushing for is the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP). Under this plan, if you or your household fall under certain poverty guidelines, the utility provider will only charge you a fixed percentage of your income. Viveiros stresses that it’s not radical; it’s not even new. Up until the ‘90s, RI had such a plan in place. “We’re a deep blue state,” he says. “It’s not a left-right issue. Red states, including some where National Grid provides utilities, have these plans.” It’s true. As of 2014, states as diverse as New Hampshire, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maine all had some version of PIPP.

And it’s not like no one has asked them. In June 2017, the George Wiley Center sent a letter to Tim Horan, the president and COO of National Grid RI, asking to commit to an income-sensitive plan. Almost three weeks later, the reply came in: “National Grid does not believe the answer is a return to the Percentage Income Payment Plan (“PIPP”). However we are working diligently to develop other programs to help income-eligible customers afford their electric and gas service.” In a reply letter, the George Wiley Center asked what those other programs would be, and National Grid never elaborated.

“If people can’t pay, they can lose their homes, become homeless, have their children taken into DCYF, be sent into nursing homes,” says Viveiros. “It’s a public health crisis.” During 2016, there were more than 20,000 utility shut-offs throughout the state. There could have been more. With their Lifeline Project, in collaboration with the RI Center of Justice, the George Wiley Center sued National Grid and the Department of Public Utilities for shut-offs on “protected” customers. Protected customers are those who need power to their home for a medical condition or machine, without which they could die. As a result of the lawsuit, 7,000 shut-offs were prevented.

Just last month, Representative Scott Slater, among others, filed House Bill 7900 to bring a form of PIPP back to Rhode Islanders. It stipulates that if you make certain percentages of the federal poverty level, you only pay a single digit percentage of your annual income for utilities. Federal government assistance toward energy and heating has declined, and the bill is meant to help counteract the decline.

That’s not the only solution to National Grid’s rising rates and reduced service quality. One (of  many) conceivable options is municipalization. The Providence chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) recently launched a Nationalize Grid campaign. DSA has been around for a while, but its membership exploded after Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the 2016 primaries. “Prices are rising, rent is going up, but wages are still stagnant,” says membership co-ordinator Dan Quayle. “We have a lot of people on a fixed income who can’t afford it when National Grid wants to increase their profits.”

DSA envisions a three-step process: Remedy the current problems, buy back or seize the grid and create a system that is accountable to the state it serves, while making citizens a part of the process. They’re also working with the George Wiley Center on utility justice issues. “A publicly owned utility company is possible,” says Viveiros. “It works in a red state like Nebraska, so why can’t it work here?” It’s not widely known, but Nebraska’s government is the only state government that owns its own power company, the Nebraska public power district. It also boasts some of the lowest power costs in the country. Its commissioners aren’t appointed; they’re elected directly by the voters. “When a local government provides these services, like in Pascoag,” says Will Speck, DSA member, “they’re cheaper, higher quality with better service.”

Municipalization isn’t a dream for some, but a serious political reality. In the middle of February, Representative J. Aaron Regunberg (District 4) filed two bills aimed at National Grid, 2018-H 7661 and 2018-H 7674. “I, like a whole lot of folks, don’t like what we’ve been seeing coming from National Grid,” says Regunberg. “There are rate hikes and reduced services. This is the second time in three months that a storm has knocked power out for people for multiple consecutive days.”

His first bill would create transparency around the ways National Grid uses customers’ money toward advertisements for National Grid itself. The second bill would create a council to investigate just what kind of public option would work best for RI. “It’s our responsibility as a legislature to come up with an alternative model,” says Regunberg. “One that is accountable to our community and not shareholders and CEOs.”

In June, the Department of Public Utilities will have evidentiary hearings about National Grid’s latest proposed rate hike. In August, the DPU will vote on it, and if it passes, it will become effective September 1, just in time for next heating season.

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