Advocates challenge National Grid rate increase and National Grid’s need to exist

Paul Rakotoarisoa

“This is no longer a negotiation,” said Paul Rakotoarisoa, one of the co-chairs of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America. “We are not asking for it any more. This is now a demand. Our first demand is that you institute PIPP. The next one is that you leave Rhode Island, National Grid, and let Rhode Island handle it.”

It was the eighth and final public comment hearing in National Grid’s rate case, but the first since a settlement was announced between National Grid and the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (RIDPUC) over a three-year series of proposed rate changes. The meeting was held by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (RIPUC) on June 19 at the Providence Campus of the Community College of Rhode Island.

The proposed rate case settlement came under criticism from representatives of the George Wiley Center and the Providence Democratic Socialists of America.

The biggest issue for the two advocacy groups is the lack of a Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIPP), which would allow low-income energy customers to pay locked-in, affordable rates based on income. National Grid offers this option in states that require it by law, but the plan awaiting approval avoids this idea in favor of a straight 25 percent discount for low-income ratepayers, which is less than bordering Massachusetts offers.

Legislation introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly this year that would have established PIPP died in committee, because General Assembly leadership is in the pocket of National Grid. Also, the legislation would have only benefited low-income residents, and they cannot afford the kind of expensive lobbyists that National Grid has.

PIPP is not the only area of disagreement between advocates and the RIDPUC.

Here’s the video from the meeting.

RIPUC Chair Margaret Curran introduced the meeting.

Robert Humm, senior counsel for the Narragansett Electric Company, doing business as National Grid said that the settlement agreement serves customers first, and the interest of the company second.

Macky McCleary, the administrator of the RIDPUC, said the goals of the settlement agreement are fourfold.

  1. Affordable rates for all ratepayers, especially low-income ratepayers
  2. Upgrading the electrical system for the 21st Century
  3. To increase ratepayer access to renewable energy and electric vehicles
  4. To bring together a diverse group of passionate stakeholders to take steps towards the future

“In conclusion” said McCleary, “we know that this agreement will not change the structural inequality that exists in our society. We know that it will not magically create equal opportunity. We know that it will not address centuries of systemic discrimination in a variety of forms. And we know it will not undo the way in which much of our system criminalizes poverty. However, in the narrow context we’ve been given, of the regulatory compact between public utilities and their customers, this compact delivers the single largest benefit for income-eligible customers ever, it puts us on the path the lead the nation in both grid modernization and renewable energy, and we hope that this is the first step along a path that will begin to address some of the structural challenges that exist in our system.”

Kevin Miller is the director of public policy for ChargePoint, which maintains electric vehicle charge stations, and they are in support of the settlement agreement.

Jennifer Wood is an attorney at the Rhode Island Center for Justice, representing the George Wiley Center in the docket that led to the settlement.

Corey, from the Providence Democratic Socialists of America talked about National Grid’s role in accelerating climate change and destroying the planet’s environment.

Nicole Dipaolo, from Climate Action Rhode Island (CARI) and the Rhode Island Sierra Club, pointed out the contradiction inherent in National Grid “talking about sustainability and making the grid more sustainable while at the same time proposing a liquefied natural gas facility in this area that has the highest asthma rates.”

“The idea that this is progress, I guess from y’all’s perspective that makes sense,” said Will Speck of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America. “But to the rest of us, to the man on the street, to the average Joe that’s going to get their bill, this is not progress. This is a step in the wrong direction.”

Speck pointed out that the settlement prioritizes the profits of National Grid shareholders. “If you want to take our money, take our money,” said Speck. “But don’t try to make us grateful for it.”

John Gonzalez pointed out the way the RIPUC and the RIDPUC segment the fossil fuel infrastructure projects in our state to make it impossible to take on the root cause of climate change and impossible to move aggressively towards renewable energy.

Camilo Viveiros, lead organizer for the George Wiley Center, wants more public involvement in utility rate changes. Viveiros made a distinction between the George Wiley Center’s legal position of the settlement, which they support, but their “moral and … long term position on this. From the very beginning,” said Viveiros, “we made it clear that we would oppose any rate increase … without consideration of a percentage income payment plan.”

Katherine Gendron, from the Providence Democratic Socialists of America said that PIPP, was the compromise, not the settlement. The PIPP is a way to fight for a publicly owned utility service, which is the ultimate goal of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America and their Nationalize Grid campaign.

Fransisco Corton, representing no particular organization, said that National Grid will find all sorts of ways to communicate with ratepayers who fall behind of payments, but do little to notify customers when rates change.

Lee Brockington is an engineer. He said that having people from out of state run Rhode Island’s electrical grid is a “waste of money and a waste of time.”

Chloe Chassaing is a volunteer at the George WIley Center. She reiterated the need for public notification about rate changes. She would also like to see more information presented to the public about the programs National Grid has that may assist low-income ratepayers. She would like to see National Grid have multiple walk-in customer service centers.

“This is no longer a negotiation,” said Paul Rakotoarisoa, one of the co-chairs of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America. “We are not asking for it any more. This is now a demand. Our first demand is that you institute PIPP. The next one is that you leave Rhode Island, National Grid, and let Rhode Island handle it.”

“If National Grid was a public institution,” said Jonathan Lewis, of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America. “then everybody could pay at least ten percent less, and nobody would lose,  except for their shareholders, who are now sucking money out of our communities, out of everybody here,  out of everybody who pays National Grid for gas or electric here in Rhode Island and everywhere else they’re forced to do that.”

Anna Kastner canvassed with the Providence Democratic Socialists of America to bring people to the meeting. “The questions we were asked the most were first, ‘Why are they trying to increase the rates? Didn’t they just ask for a rate increase?’ And the second question we got, often, was “Why [do they need] to increase the rates?

“I can’t speak for National Grid,” said Kastner. “But the only reason I can think of is greediness.”

Alex Burnett is a volunteer at the George Wiley Center. As for the various utility assistance programs offered by National Grid, “the majority of people I speak with do do know” about these plans.

“National Grid knows that and nobody has any faith in National Grid,” said Burnett.

In Burnett’s time volunteering at the George Wiley Center, “so much of the work has essentially been customer service work for National Grid, because National Grid doesn’t do it.”

Alex Burnett
Anna Kastner
Jonathan Lewis
Lee Brockington
Fransisco Corton
Katherine Gendron
Camilo Viveiros
Martina Müller
Corey
Jennifer Wood
Will Speck

Nicole Dipaolo

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About Steve Ahlquist 669 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com

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