ALBANY — Consumers displeased with potential monthly increases to their utility bills provided commentary this week to state officials weighing controversial rate hikes as families and businesses face financial hardship through the coronavirus pandemic.
Niagara Mohawk, owned by National Grid, filed amendments July 31 to its tariff schedules, proposing to increase electric and gas delivery rates starting July 1, 2021, according to the state Public Service Commission.
The company proposes to increase electric delivery revenue by approximately $100.4 million — a 4.9% increase in base delivery revenue and a 3.2% increase in total revenue. The company proposed to raise natural gas delivery revenue 5.2%, or by about $41.8 million — a 9.8% increase in base delivery revenue.
Under the rate changes, residential electric bills would increase an average of $3.43 per month. Residential gas customers would see an average bill increase of about $4.53 per month.
The Public Service Commission accepted comments from consumers, businesses and organizations alike during four public hearings this week, with two each Wednesday and Thursday. Hearings on the proposed rate hikes will continued Tuesday and Wednesday before the commission is to make a decision.
Commissioners Diane Burman and John Howard were present. Participants were not asked questions after speaking.
“I know ... people of New York cannot afford an extra average of a $100 increase in their utility bills per year,” said National Grid ratepayer Gabriel Silva, a commenter who did not say where he lives in the state. “We are at a time when on Oct. 1, we have 1.5 million New Yorkers possibly facing eviction. We have billions of dollars in back rent that haven’t been paid because people don’t have the money.
“If people can’t afford to stay in their own homes, how can they afford an extra $100?”
The rate increases will help maintain affordability and lessen impacts to customer bills during the COVID-19 pandemic, update electric and gas infrastructure to improve energy efficiency and preserve company credit, according to Niagara Mohawk.
Impacts to customer bills under the proposed increase will vary depending on revenue allocation and rate design, according to the commission.
Corporation representatives and officials from local chambers of commerce, many of which partner with National Grid for community projects and capital investment, largely spoke in favor of the rate hikes.
Niagara County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Corey Schuler spoke in support of the proposed rate increases.
“During these difficult times, it is difficult to support a rate increase, but we understand it’s necessary in order for National Grid to continue to provide safe and reliable service,” he said, adding the extra revenue would allow the utility company to cover economic development program costs and enhance energy affordability programs and services.
Peter Cammarata, president of Buffalo’s Urban Development Corporation, spoke in favor of the rate increases, saying utilities providing reliable power is vital to the region’s economic development efforts.
“It is not unusual to have significant electrical demand requirements,” he said, as utilities must adequately support their transmission and distribution systems. “National Grid’s funding infrastructure costs are vital for both the importance for National Grid and economic development programs. We support the continuation of these programs.”
Residential electric customers have seen less than a $45 increase on their bills over the past year, Schuler argued.
“This increase would also allow National Grid to ... demand response programs to help customers manage their energy bills,” he said. “In the PSC’s own words, your No. 1 priority is ensuring all New Yorkers have access to safe, reliable and clean energy services. The proposed increased would allow that to happen.”
In July, National Grid proposed a $50 million COVID-19 relief package to assist financially struggling customers and businesses, and $25 million for low-income residents in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which assists families with energy costs.
Several environmentalists and activists addressed the commission, criticizing National Grid for perpetuating the use of fossil fuels and climate change.
In 2019, the state Legislature’s passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, requiring New York to have completely carbon-free electricity by 2040 and 70% renewable energy by 2030. National Grid’s plans to invest millions in new pipeline infrastructure will further exacerbate climate change for future generations, said Rensselaer County resident Jeannette Rice.
“It’s leading us to an increasingly unstable environment and condemning future generations to climate chaos,” she said. “Rather than fund an expensive, dying industry, I want National Grid to be a leader to help New York state energy production change to sustainable energy — to solar, wind and geothermal. Rather than ask for a rate hike, National Grid needs to develop plans for future energy production in line with the CLPCA’s future energy goals.”
Rebecca Meier, an activist from Canaan, Columbia County, co-founded groups Stop NY Fracked Gas Pipeline and Community Advocates for a Sustainable Environment to oppose fossil fuel infrastructure.
Meier was one of several environmental activists to speak out against the proposed rate hikes this week, as some of the additional revenue would help fund the controversial Albany Loop Pipeline E37, or other similar projects.
“If we do not begin immediately to stop fossil-fuel infrastructure we are dooming future generations,” she said. “We cannot afford to build redundant and climate-destroying pipelines and National Grid should stop this project once and for all.”
The pipeline, a 7.3-mile fracked gas transmission line, starts in Bethlehem and runs across the river to the towns of East Greenbush and North Greenbush.
National Grid submitted a statement to the commission at the end of July, citing decreased demand through the coronavirus pandemic, and putting the project indefinitely on hold.
“In the near term, the company has determined that there are adequate gas supplies to meet customer demand in upstate New York, such that we are able to temporarily defer the Albany Loop project from a supply perspective,” according to National Grid.
Meier reviewed the company’s submission to the state from earlier this year.
“So clearly, the pipeline is not needed to meet needs of current or future customers,” she said.
The Public Service Commission will accept comments on the proposed utility rate hikes through Oct. 16. Email comments to the commission about Niagara Mohawk’s proposed rate hikes to commission secretary Hon. Michelle L. Phillips at email@example.com. The Commission’s Opinion Line is open to receive in-state calls for comments 24 hours a day. To leave a comment about the proposed hikes, call 1-800-335-2120.
Comments may also be submitted online at dps.ny.gov, by clicking “search” and entering case number 20-E-0380 or 20-G-0381 in the Search by Case Number field and clicking “Post Comments” at the top right of the webpage.
Mail comments to Hon. Michelle L. Phillips, Secretary, Public Service Commission, at Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350.