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Questions arise about Governor Raimondo’s energy post appointments

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We want to connect [Governor Gina Raimondo‘s] expressed concern about affordable housing to the need to support PIPP, as a way to assure low-income residents don’t live in the cold and dark,” writes the George Wiley Center. “Currently in the state of Rhode Island thousands of households are put through the trauma of utility termination, left to live days and sometimes months without service due to unaffordable utility bills. Affordable utilities are an essential element of affordable housing, and stopping the shut-off crisis should be central to any comprehensive utility policy as we move toward clean energy.”


Last week Governor Gina Raimondo named three people to leadership positions on her state energy team: Nicholas Ucci as State Energy Commissioner; Linda George as Administrator of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC); and Ronald Gerwatowski as Chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The Governor will submit their names to the Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday, January 14 for advice and consent.

After the names are officially submitted, the Senate will schedule hearings to approve or deny the nominations as part of their mandate to provide “advice and consent.” Unfortunately, more often than not this advice and consent is merely a hasty rubber stamp, as was the case when the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee approved the Governor’s nominations to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) despite a clear history of racism and classism.

Governor Raimondo has a history of using her power to nominate pro-fossil fuel people to leadership positions in key councils and boards ahead of big decisions. She made several key appointments to the CRMC just months before the Council took up the approval of National Grid‘s liquefaction facility in the Port of Providence.

“As we strive to make Rhode Island’s energy system cleaner, more affordable and more reliable, I am thrilled to announce a new energy leadership team that will help carry out our vision for the new decade,” wrote Governor Raimondo in a statement. “Nick, Linda, and Ron have all proven themselves capable leaders with decades of experience designing and implementing clean energy policy. I look forward to having them on board as we work to build Rhode Island’s clean energy future.”

While at the Office of Energy Resources (OER) Nicholas Ucci lead the state effort to approve Invenergy‘s proposed $1B fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant in northwest Rhode Island, a four-year battle that was ultimately unsuccessful. In his public statement, Ucci fails to mention his support for building more fossil fuel infrastructure in Rhode Island.


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“As a native Rhode Islander, I value the interconnectedness of our local communities – its residents, businesses, and governments – and shared stake in a vibrant economy and sustainable environment,” wrote Ucci in a statement. “Our energy system is foundational to all of it. Recent experience – including the 400 MW Revolution Wind Farm and nation-leading energy efficiency programs – demonstrates that the Ocean State can secure cost-effective, affordable energy solutions and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while spurring local investment and job growth.”

Ron Gerwatowski has served as Senior Regulatory Advisor for the DPUC since January 2018 and is one of the lead authors of last year’s DPUC report about National Grid accountability for the Aquidneck Island gas outages. Gerwatowski once served as Senior Vice President of United States Regulation and Pricing for National Grid.

As shown here, the DPUC report that Ron Gerwatowski co-aurthored determined the cause of the Aquidneck Island gas outages, and made several suggestions for preventing such outages in the future. One of the recommendations made was for National Grid to engage with Enbridge “to determine the feasibility of reinforcing service into Portsmouth by having Algonquin add a twelve-inch pipe in parallel with the existing six-inch pipe,” an major expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Rhode Island.

Note that nowhere in the report is it indicated that pipeline capacity was a reason for the gas outages. This recommendation, a multi-million dollar pipeline expansion, was thrown in without any evidence of need, a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry for which Gerwatowski used to work.

Today brings more to the story, as Camilo Viveiros, executive director of the George Wiley Center, has written to the Raimondo Administration to remind the Governor about a campaign promise she made during the 2014 gubernatorial election. During that election the George Wiley Center sent a survey asking all the candidates about their stances on various utility-related issues, including if they would consider the Center’s input when making nominations for the Public Utilities Commission, asking, “Before making recommendations for appointments to the PUC, are you willing to consult and meet with the Rate Payers Advisory Board, the George Wiley Center and other agencies who work with low-income utility consumers who are directly impacted by the decisions and policies of the PUC?”

“Yes,” replied then candidate Raimondo. “As governor, my door will be open to the George Wiley Center to discuss the work of the Public Utilities Commission.”

In an open letter to the Governor, Viveiros writes, “We are concerned that none of the potential appointees are yet on record as supporting the George Wiley Center’s proposed Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIPP), a proposal we have submitted at the statehouse and advocated for at the PUC and Division, both internally and during community hearings, for years. We have double-checked our petitions and hearing comments and have found the Governor’s slate does not include anyone who has expressed support for this sound policy. We are writing to confirm the position of appointees on this important issue.”

PIPP is an “income-sensitive tiered subsidy program to ensure that home energy utility costs are affordable for eligible low-income households,” according the legislation submitted last year that never made it out of committee.

The George Wiley Center is asking that the nominees clearly state their position on PIPP before being approved by the Senate.

“The positions the nominees have been appointed to require leadership and quick responses to urgent issues,” wrote Viveiros in his open letter. “The public’s confidence and trust is based on the reality of whether appointees are viewed as balanced and fair to all utility consumers, not just utility companies. All three of these proposed appointments have been in the field and involved in shaping Rhode Island utility policies. They should have a clear position that will distinguish their leadership capacity and independence from corporate influences. As a grassroots organizing group that has focused on utility justice issues for decades, we can only support appointees who support our main utility policy goal of PIPP. We look forward to your response and confirmation of support, so we can move together toward an energy future that includes a just transition for people and planet.”

UpriseRI will follow up when a date to consider these appointments is scheduled. All three nominees will begin their new jobs immediately after being confirmed.


Here’s the letter from the George Wiley Center to Governor Raimondo:

Dear Honorable Governor Gina Raimondao, Nicholas S. Ucci, Linda George, and Ronald Gerwatowski,

The George Wiley Center is writing regarding the Governor’s proposed appointments of Nicholas S. Ucci as State Energy Commissioner, Linda George as Administrator of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC), and Ronald Gerwatowski as Chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and to clarify your positions on the critical utility policy issue of a Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIPP). We write in the context of concerns expressed, past and present, around revolving door positions, between public officials and private corporations, and corporate influence and dominance. It’s important for Rhode Islanders to have trust in our elected and appointed decision-makers based on accountability, transparency, and openness to public feedback.

During the 2014 gubernatorial election the George Wiley Center sent a survey asking all candidates’ stances on various utility-related issues, including if they would consider our input when making nominations for the Public Utilities Commission. The George Wiley Center survey asked: “Before making recommendations for appointments to the PUC, are you willing to consult and meet with the Rate Payers Advisory Board, the George Wiley Center and other agencies who work with low-income utility consumers who are directly impacted by the decisions and policies of the PUC?” Candidate Gina Raimondo replied: “Yes. As governor, my door will be open to the George Wiley Center to discuss the work of the Public Utilities Commission.” We appreciated this response and take Governor Raimondo at her word. That’s why we expect this letter of inquiry will be welcomed.

We are concerned that none of the potential appointees are yet on record as supporting the George Wiley Center’s proposed Percentage Income Payment Plan, a proposal we have submitted at the statehouse and advocated for at the PUC and Division, both internally and during community hearings, for years. We have double-checked our petitions and hearing comments and have found the Governor’s slate does not include anyone who has expressed support for this sound policy. We are writing to confirm the position of appointees on this important issue.

At the recent statehouse interfaith vigil the Governor stated that “making sure everybody has affordable housing, a safe warm place to lie their head on a pillow at night and not be going to school after sleeping in a car the night before.” We couldn’t agree more. We want to connect her expressed concern about affordable housing to the need to support PIPP, as a way to assure low-income residents don’t live in the cold and dark. Currently in the state of Rhode Island thousands of households are put through the trauma of utility termination, left to live days and sometimes months without service due to unaffordable utility bills. Affordable utilities are an essential element of affordable housing, and stopping the shut-off crisis should be central to any comprehensive utility policy as we move toward clean energy.

The George Wiley Center crafted our PIPP proposal in consultation with national experts in the field and with our members who are directly impacted by the lack of such policies. Every day that this proposal is not in place an unbalanced approach to the costs of utilities will be maintained. Although after years of advocating there was a recent increase in the discount rate for low-income households, we still rank among the most expensive states for our energy costs. As has thoroughly been explained to the Division and the PUC, a PIPP approach exists in over a dozen states, existed in RI in the past, and is long overdue to return as soon as possible. Every moment that goes by that a PIPP is not in practice means a disproportionate burden continues to be placed on those who can’t afford our electric or gas bills. With the support of the Governor and her proposed appointees, the injustice of energy insecurity could become an issue of the past, through implementation of a PIPP.

We are enclosing a link to the PIPP legislation as it will be re-submitted this year and request a response within 24 hours with a simple “yes” for supporting this specific legislation or “no” for opposing it. This is a fair request with what is at stake for our members, our neighborhoods and families. We would like to submit this legislation this year with your support.

The positions the nominees have been appointed to require leadership and quick responses to urgent issues. The public’s confidence and trust is based on the reality of whether appointees are viewed as balanced and fair to all utility consumers, not just utility companies. All three of these proposed appointments have been in the field and involved in shaping RI utility policies. They should have a clear position that will distinguish their leadership capacity and independence from corporate influences. As a grassroots organizing group that has focused on utility justice issues for decades, we can only support appointees who support our main utility policy goal of PIPP. We look forward to your response and confirmation of support, so we can move together toward an energy future that includes a just transition for people and planet.

Please answer with yes or no the following:

Do you currently support the passage of PIPP?

Percentage of Income Home Affordability Act 2019 H 5780

YES_____
NO______


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