The Battle for Affordable Utilities: Advocates Rally for Income-Based Payment Plans

Over 75 supporters gathered at the State House to push for the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP), an income-sensitive tiered subsidy program for low-income households’ home energy utility costs. Despite being held for “further study” for over a decade, advocates hope for change in Rhode Island’s energy cost system.

Rhode Island News: The Battle for Affordable Utilities: Advocates Rally for Income-Based Payment Plans

April 27, 2023, 12:50 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Over 75 people gathered inside and outside the House Corporations Committee meeting at the State House on Tuesday in support of the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP), which would “create an income-sensitive tiered subsidy program to ensure that home energy utility costs are affordable for eligible low-income households.” In other words, lower-income ratepayers would pay for utilities based on their income, not their usage. The bill, which seeks to positively impact the lives of low and modest income Rhode Islanders, has been before the General Assembly for over ten years, and is perpetually held for “further study.”

“As it stands, low-income households pay a hirer percentage of their incomes to gas and electric costs,” said Camillo Viveiros, executive director of the George Wiley Center, in his testimony supporting the legislation. The George Wiley Center, based in Pawtucket, is a grassroots agency that organizes members of the low-income community to advocate for systematic changes aimed at alleviating problems associated with poverty. 

Representative Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence), who has staunchly advocated for this bill for years, dropped the acronym “PIPP,” the term advocates such as the George Wiley Center have used for years to rally support for the proposal. Instead, Representative Slater has titled his bill the “Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Enhancement Plan.”

Percentage of Income Payment Plan 2023-04-25 House Committee on Corporations

LIHEAP is a federal grant program, overseen in Rhode Island by the Department of Human Services, that assists “eligible low-income households pay their heating bills through federal grants to the household.”

Slater’s bill would empower the Public Utilities Commission to develop one or more discount tiers for residents that qualify for LIHEAP or Medicaid assistance.

A form of PIPP is working in Pennsylvania, where the energy company PPL, like in Rhode Island, runs much of the energy distribution system. (In Rhode Island PPL operates as Rhode Island Energy.) In testimony, Rhode Island Energy has come out in support of some form of the program, but Representative Slater’s bill will require some modifications in order to pass muster with Rhode Island Energy and some government agencies

“[S]ince this proposal was last reviewed, the Narragansett Electric Company’s ownership has changed from National Grid to a PPL company,” said Representative Slater to the committee. “PPL in Pennsylvania has a combined PIPP with arrearage forgiveness component. The PUC suggests that it may make sense to revise the bill to create a framework that would allow for efficiencies that may come from the Pennsylvania experience, particularly in administrative and billing system areas.”

Nicholas Ucci, Rhode Island Energy’s Director of Government Affairs, testified that the energy company “stands ready to work with this Committee, bill sponsors, utility regulators, and valued stakeholders in constructing a viable path forward for PIPP.”

Rhode Island Energy, the Department of Human Resources (DHS) and the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC) appear to want a freer hand in designing the program. DHS in particular, serving as the voice of Governor Daniel McKee, raised the issue of increased utility rates for people not eligible for PIPP, were the program to be implemented.

Energy costs are part of a broken system that contributes to precarity, poverty, eviction and homelessness. Rising rents, rising energy costs and flat wages for low and modest income Rhode Islanders are having devastating impacts on the mental and physical health of our communities.

As the George Wiley Center’s Camillo Viveiros said in his testimony, “Every month that goes by without a PIPP in place, low-income consumers pay disproportionately unaffordable rates.”