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Advocacy groups push back against proposed NYSEG rate increase

Under the new laws, NYSEG and other major energy utility companies will have to submit thermal energy pilot plans to the state by the end of the year. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)
Under the new laws, NYSEG and other major energy utility companies will have to submit thermal energy pilot plans to the state by the end of the year. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

NYSEG's proposed rate increase would mean higher utility bills for electric and gas customers across New York. Brent Fox speaks with Ian Donaldson from the Public Utility Law Project of New York or PULP. PULP is a nonprofit organization advocating for universal service, affordability and protections for all New York utility customers.

Brent Fox: So let me start off with when was this proposed rate increase first brought to your attention?

Ian Donaldson: Yeah, so the company actually filed this last year. Rate cases generally speaking are about a year long process. And we're in confidential negotiations now with the Public Service Commission and the company and a bunch of other parties to the case. But this has been on our radar for quite some time. And we were really concerned by the proposed double digit rate increases the company initially put forward.

BF: Why have you been speaking out against this proposed rate increase?

ID: Affordability is top of mind for my organization. We're a 40 year old not for profit that educates, advocates, and litigates on behalf of low income utility consumers. And the thing that we see everyday in our direct service cases is that people are already struggling and they cannot afford the proposed double digit rate increase that the company is putting forward.

We know based on all of the utilities have to report how many of their customers are behind on a monthly basis to the Public Service Commission and over 115,000 NYSEG customers are already 60 days behind on their utility bills. So suffice to say people can't afford their bills. Now, they're struggling with the high effects of inflation, volatile energy prices, and another rate increase will just continue to hurt that.

BF: I reached out to NYSEG about this proposed rate increase and here is their statement.

"NYSEG's proposed plan will enable much needed investment in the company's infrastructure, provide for a better customer experience, and provide benefits for its most vulnerable customers.

It also reaffirms the company's commitment to build more economic, social and environmentally sustainable communities throughout the areas it serves.

In short, it will allow NYSEG to accomplish its top priority, which is to provide safe, reliable electric and natural gas service to its customers."

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BF: And what are your thoughts on NYSEG's statement that the increase is needed to help them improve their own infrastructure to avoid some of the issues they've been having this past winter with people getting bills that were way too high, or were not even getting their bills.

ID: The Public Utility Law Project's take on that it's like it's unfair to ask customers that are struggling to pay for the same service they're getting. But it's really unjust to do so while the company is under investigation for widespread billing problems.

We totally understand that the company might need to recoup some costs, especially when it comes to like one of the big things that PULP is advocating for in this rate case, is for a full cycle vegetation management, just because due to safety, reliability concerns of their electric system.

When trees get too overgrown, that can really impact stuff when it comes to storm responses. And that can really impact reliability, put people out of power. So there are some areas where we think increases are necessary.

However, the bulk of it, we just think it's really unfair to ask their customers that are already struggling to pay more when the company is offering the same service. And they're under investigation by the Public Service Commission for their widespread billing problems.

BF: Would you see there being a compromise coming out of this situation?

ID: So rate cases, there's a give and take, or as I said earlier, right now, we're in confidential negotiations with the company, the department and a bunch of other parties to the case. So I can't really talk about the specifics of that, unfortunately. But we're hopeful. I mean, there are some priorities that PULP is pushing for in the rate case, mainly to reduce the proposed rate impact primarily, but then also bolster consumer protections like getting them to enroll more folks and their energy affordability program that really helps reduce customers' bills.

Expanding heat protections, so right now the company has a has a policy where if the temperature is hotter than 95 degrees, that they won't terminate people's service because obviously this becomes a public health problem. It's a public safety and welfare problem, because people need their electricity to cool their homes during hot days . Well PULP is saying okay, this is a great policy, but let's build on it. Let's lower it to 90 degrees and then going forward when communities are suffering from a heat island effect as many people in Binghamton do, let's reduce it even further, a little bit more.

So there are some give and takes in a rate case, but PULP has our own set of priorities that we're really pushing for and advocating for to make sure that all of NYSEG's customers are protected.

BF: I've been speaking with Ian Donaldson of the Public Utility Project in Albany. Ian's been great to have you on.

ID: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it.

In addition to advocacy groups, 32 state lawmakers are also urging the rate increase to be rejected.

Has been working in public media since 2018. Was a multimedia producer at WNIT in South Bend, Indiana before making his way back to the New York.