Policy as Justice: Stop Utility Shut-offs in Rhode Island

“For all the concern about violence and protest these days, decision makers need to recognize that harmful economic policies can be violent. The policies we have, and how we follow them, can make or break justice.“ Pre-existing inequities are in the spotlight, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now with international protests for racial justice. While many may feel

Rhode Island News: Policy as Justice: Stop Utility Shut-offs in Rhode Island

June 3, 2020, 8:00 am

By Chloe Chassaing

For all the concern about violence and protest these days, decision makers need to recognize that harmful economic policies can be violent. The policies we have, and how we follow them, can make or break justice.

Pre-existing inequities are in the spotlight, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now with international protests for racial justice. While many may feel increased empathy around issues of injustice, for those in positions of power, now is an opportunity to go beyond social media posts and rhetoric. It’s time to act and enact. Local elected officials and policy makers can play a role in creating a more just system, a more humane “new normal” here in Rhode Island. Those who have lived with privilege based on race and wealth must now push for a more equitable society by implementing policies toward racial and economic justice. One tangible way to do this is to stop the utility shut-off crisis and ensure utility access for all Rhode Islanders.

This week Rhode Island state senate committees will consider for approval three nominees to top utility policy positions: Linda George to head the Division of Public Utilities, Ronald Gerwatowski as chair of the Public Utilities Commission, and Nicholas Ucci as head of the Office of Energy Resources. It’s unusual that these three agency appointments coincide, so it’s important to ensure their commitment to working together for a future where utility systems are ecologically sustainable as well as affordable for ratepayers.

When Governor Gina Raimondo was first running for office she was asked a question from the George Wiley Center in regard to future input on utility agency appointees: “Before making recommendations for appointments to the PUC, are you willing to consult and meet with…. 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?” As a candidate for governor, her answer was, “Yes. As governor, my door will be open to the George Wiley Center to discuss the work of the Public Utilities Commission.”

As the state’s leading organizing group for residential utility consumers, it was a logical ask and yet a disappointing outcome that the George Wiley Center’s input has not been sought when considering nominations. Upon learning of the three appointees, the George Wiley Center sent each a letter, along with the Governor, asking if they would commit to supporting a PIPP (percentage income payment plan), so low-income Rhode Islanders could pay a more affordable utility rate and help stop shut-offs. Although PIPP is an effective affordable utility policy in place in over a dozen other states, all three appointees were unwilling to clearly commit to supporting a PIPP, and the Governor offered no response.

Over the few months before the State House was shut down due to COVID-19, the George Wiley Center along with other environmental and public policy advocates, reached out to State House committee members regarding concerns around these appointments, which had been stalled for consideration. Now with the State House partial reopening, the three appointees will be considered this week, yet no one from the public will be allowed to be physically present for the hearings, paving the way for nomination approvals in the absence of concerned community members. I think it’s necessary that committee members ask themselves and then ask the nominees these questions: “Are you committed to stopping utility shut-offs on low-income households who can’t afford their bills? Do you support PIPP?”

Since the beginning of the state of emergency due to COVID-19, the George Wiley Center has repeatedly advocated for a moratorium on utility terminations. Most people don’t pay attention to utilities until they are gone, but they provide a background to our day to day lives. We rely on utility service of water, sewer, gas, and electricity to wash our hands, drink, shower, clean, cook, refrigerate food, wash clothes, stay warm, stay cool, charge medical equipment, stay in communication, seek information, attend school and work from home, etc. During the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the Public Utilities Commission has agreed there should be no terminations on utility service for nonpayment. But can we ask ourselves, why are utility terminations acceptable any time of the year, before or after a pandemic? Why, if there are policies that could work, do we not choose to ensure utility access as a basic need, always?

While it is helpful that the PUC has extended the shut-off moratorium until at least July 17th, it has been disappointing to see the lack of commitment to a long term solution from the PUC, the three appointees, and the Governor. Watching the PUC’s live-streamed open meetings it’s notable how they have joked with one another from the comfort of their lovely homes. One is left to wonder if the Commissioners even realize how out of touch they may seem to the many Rhode Islanders who struggle to afford basic needs. Admittedly, it’s probably difficult for those with six figure salaries to relate to the struggle of affording a few hundred dollar utility bill. Wealthier policy makers would do well to give themselves some fiscal education on the reality of many Rhode Islanders who they are tasked with representing. Perhaps imagine only getting to keep 2 months of your salary each year, then pay all the year’s expenses with that. That’s what it’s like for a household trying to manage with a minimum wage income of $21,840 a year.

Every year Rhode Islanders experience a cruel seasonal spike in shut-offs from May to October. In 2019, 19,000 households were put through the trauma of utility termination from gas or electricity, left to survive without basic needs for days and months. To reiterate, these shut-off numbers are indicative of households, which means the number of people affected is much more. These numbers are alarmingly high for such a small state as Rhode Island. If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to your neighbor, your friend, your co-worker, the person who bags your groceries. In recent years the George Wiley Center sued National Grid and the state of Rhode Island to stop shut-offs on medically vulnerable households, and there is continued advocacy for other protections. A higher discount rate was recently won for both electric and gas, as well as a forgiveness program for high utility debts (AMP, arrearage management plan). While there has been progress, even with these protections, discounts, and forgiveness programs, Rhode Island still needs a long term sustainable system of affordability, such as a PIPP.

The elephant in the room, the reason it’s difficult to achieve affordability, is that Rhode Island is in a deep relationship with a for-profit multinational UK-based corporation, National Grid, that has a near monopoly on our electric and gas distribution. We can’t expect that National Grid would be “here with you, here for you” if it didn’t dovetail with their primary motivation to make as much money as possible. Thanks to Rhode Island utility ratepayers and others around the world, National Grid amassed over $4 billion in profit last year, with the CEO John Pettigrew making $6 million, receiving a $1 million raise from the prior year for “strong performance” and “delivering value to shareholders.” The appetite of such a corporate entity is insatiable and it will always want to increase its profit by seeking more from ratepayers. National Grid could voluntarily implement a PIPP, and they have been asked to do so multiple times, including with a visit last week from George Wiley Center members who left chalk messages on the road in front of the house of the Rhode Island National Grid president (see video below). If National Grid is unwilling to stop shut-offs and implement a PIPP, it’s time for Rhode Island decision makers, policy makers, and regulators to do so, to do their jobs and stand on the side of basic needs over corporate greed.

With the ongoing consideration at the PUC, via docket 5022, around how and if to extend a shut-off moratorium during the pandemic, there have been questions asked of utilities, mainly regarding their companies’ cash flow. For the most recent round, the utilities were asked to provide a plan for “resuming collections”, a nice way of saying shut-offs. Disappointingly, the PUC did not mandate any specific measures for improved payment plans, considering that Rhode Islanders have been hit with high unemployment and economic hardship due to the pandemic. Instead, at an open meeting the chairperson stated that it was the PUC’s job “to make sure that we make it clear to utilities that we trust them to manage their own business.” The George Wiley Center wrote a letter to the PUC expressing concern about the PUC’s lack of regulatory oversight, and the need to implement long-term policy solutions such as a PIPP. It was co-signed by several dozen groups. (see the full letter below)

While other utility companies are small, local, and quasi-publicly run, it seems appropriate that National Grid, as a behemoth corporation, should be held to a higher expectation, including forgoing some of its profit in the public interest during a pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the company submitted it’s proposed plan to resume collections with little substantive change to payment plans that had already existed, instead providing an increased focus on “bill health.” National Grid’s idea of “bill health” essentially entails doing more outreach to customers, educating them on how to get money from other places, whether from CARES Act funds for businesses, LIHEAP, churches, and other charities. In a moment when our local charities are strapped for resources, doing their best to provide for people in need, it is shameful that a corporation with billions in profit has outlined asking charities for funds as a main solution “plan” for people who can’t afford their service. It has always struck me as duplicitous that in National Grid’s paper mailed monthly bills is included a separate envelope for customers to donate to the energy fund, to help those who can’t afford their bills, when the “donation” is ultimately destined for National Grid’s pocket. It would be better, more ethical and sustainable to instead implement utility payment plans that people can actually afford, rather than asking generous Rhode Islanders to subsidize National Grid.

It has been great to work with environmental activists in recent years and it’s important that the green energy future does not splinter economic and ecological justice. Often people are told that if we use less energy our bills will go down, that this is the main solution. It makes total sense, using less should cost less. It’s something people can feel good about doing, to save the earth and their wallet at the same time. Sadly, I’ve also heard this promoted as a reason to blame low-income households for their bills being too high, that education and lower utility usage is the answer. While it’s true that individuals may be able to cut costs and I agree with the need for energy efficiency and green energy sources, the reality is that our bills will never go down, collectively, as long as we live under the policy of decoupling in Rhode Island. As far as I understand it, decoupling separates customer usage from guaranteed profit for a utility company. It has been promoted as a way to encourage a transition to a greener energy system, so that utility companies won’t oppose such shifts if they still get their piece of the monetary pie. This means if we use less energy as a whole, our bills will not go down as a whole, since National Grid will recover the difference through adjusting its rates, to get a guaranteed profit (which was adjusted upward in the most recent rate case settlement). So without clear policies for affordability, such as a PIPP, future utilities may become even more unaffordable for low-income households, even as we are all using less and doing so from green energy sources. Right now, nationwide, Rhode Island is one of the most energy efficient, while also being one of the most expensive for ratepayers. Becoming more efficient with energy use does not innately lead to greater affordability, as long as our utility systems are tied to for-profit companies and a decoupling mechanism.

There’s no guarantee that an ecological utility system will be accessible and affordable, unless we mandate that it is so. Doing this will require asking tough questions about National Grid’s current and future role in Rhode Island. It will require asking tough questions about why those in charge of setting utility policies often defer to National Grid’s wishes. It will require asking which decision makers receive donations from National Grid, who is in charge of influencing energy policy and what is their relationship to the company? The appointee for chair of the PUC, Ronald Gerwatwoski, is a former vice president for National Grid. Shouldn’t this disqualify someone from leading the PUC, an agency tasked with regulating National Grid? He and the other appointees should be asked, how will you stand up to National Grid, how will you stand up for the people of Rhode Island, how will you stop utility shut-offs due to unaffordable bills?

These three appointees should be considered in the context of this moment. For all the concern about violence and protest these days, decision makers need to recognize that harmful economic policies can be violent. The policies we have, and how we follow them, can make or break justice. Even those who are well-intentioned are not entitled to being considered a “nice person” if they enact and use policies that are anything but nice. If, as a state, we truly want to move toward racial and economic justice, policies must be judged for how they impact low-income and communities of color. We must demand that policy makers who collect a generous paycheck take responsibility for their role in setting policies, in impacting people’s lives and public health.

Through their leadership at the Division of Public Utilities, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Office of Energy Resources, the three appointees up for consideration will influence utility and energy policies, affecting our communities for decades. Will Linda George, Ronald Gerwatowski, and Nicholas Ucci support PIPP? Will they commit to stopping shut-offs, ensuring affordable utility access as a basic need, as we transition to a green utility system? If not, these three appointees should be disqualified from shaping Rhode Island’s energy future.

Share your opinion (remotely) with the committees who will decide on these appointees on Wednesday, June 3rd and Thursday June 4th. See Facebook event:

Public Testimony for the Senate Environmental Committee June 3, 2020

VIDEO, George Wiley Center members give chalk PIPP message to RI National Grid president:


For more info on PIPP and to join hundreds of Rhode Islanders who have signed the petition see here.

More background on the energy appointees and utility access in RI: