Active Power - Newletter November 2016
Utility billing is important . . . it documents and quantifies utilities’ delivery of the service we want and need. Such importance demands utility bills should meet some key criteria.
- Utilities should design and present bills that are easy for customers to read and understand.
- Bill should provide customers with timely and accurate data.
- They should carefully display corrections and adjustments, and,
- stop shifting between "real" and "estimated readings that confuse what we are getting, when we get it and if it paid or owed.
- Finally, bills should ensure questions, answers, and problems by trained personnel on phone or in person.
Too often our utilities fail to meet these criteria. It's great the PSC has staff who can help, but we really need the PSC to stop the utilities getting away with poor-to-nonexistent customer service.
The US Census has a benchmark, that US households pay no more than 6% of their disposable income for power, water and sewer services, and telecommunications.
All Public Service Commissions claim their rate structures established by our Public Service Commissions assure this.
However, the CUB learned from Jacqui Patterson, the NAACP’s Director for Climate and Enviromental Justice programs, low-income communities and communities of color pay far more for power, and water, than other ratepayers.
These households tend to live in housing that areun-weatherized, and consume far more power for their homes. They live in multi-family buildings notorious for faulty metering, further increasing their consumption. They typically have old appliances and HVAC systems that are very inefficient, wasting more power and customer moneey. Because their homes consume more energy, their power bills are far higher. So much so they are often unable to pay them in full, and, in consquence may continually face disconnection, eventually eviction and homelessness.
Roger Colton an economist with Boston Public Finance and Economics firm, Fisher, Sheehan and Colton, has been working on solutions on utility “affordability" for 30 years. For the last 15, Colton’s been tracking US Census data to show just how much more than the 6% benchmark low-income families actually spend on a state-by-state basis.
Colton calls this “the energy affordability gap”: you can learn more about what it is, and explore state-by-state comparisons and maps. See
A May 8, 2016 article in Inside Energy (“High Utility Costs Force Hard Decisions for the Poor” by Dan Boyce and Jordan Wirfs-Brock) presents some chilling cases-in-point; here's the article: http://insideenergy.org/2016/05/08/high-utility-costs-force-hard-decisions-for-the-poor/
I am currently reading documents from a recent case of Colton’s in conjunction with the Public Advocate for Community Legal Services, Inc. of Philadelphia, PA.
They succeeded getting the city’s City Council to adopt legislation amending Philadelphia’s Water Rate Affordability program to deliver affordable bills as a percentage (between 2% and 4%) of household income, for low-income families. The amendments also remove a number of the barriers for the applications process for this program.
In this case, Colton’s testimony concluded: . . . in sum, "affordable utility service generates public benefits that without question are above and beyond the benefits to indvidual households.”
Like Philadelphia, DC can do better for its ratepayers exploring innovative regulatory programs such as this one. Colton's point is not that jurisdictions don't have programs, like DC's rate, it's that it may be hard for those who should be eligible to get access to them. Frequently the programs are not structured to solve the cycles of energy insecurity these households face.
What can the CUB do? We learn from and collaborate with experts such as Colton, and our Philadelphia counterpart, Rob Ballenger, their Community Legal Services Public Advocate. We can reach out to Jacqui Patterson on her offer to continue working with us to address the needs of District families and children who remain mired in energy dependency.
TheCUB Board and Members wish you well and Holiday Greetings.
Chair, DC Consumer Utility Board