Advocates Urge Relief for Low-Income Households Struggling with Utility Bills
May 1, 2023
PROVIDENCE — After a winter of record-high electric and gas bills, marginalized communities across the state are asking lawmakers to do more to curb energy costs.
Advocates have long made the case to state officials that any increase in the utility rates charged by Rhode Island Energy would plunge residents into poverty and further immiseration.
And state regulators approved a big increase last October. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the state agency that provides oversight and review for utilities, approved a whopping 47% electric rate hike, adding an additional $50.76 a month on average to household electric bills. The price for natural gas customers, which include many who rely on it for heating and cooking in the urban core, was raised by 15%.
While the state was fortunate to have a relatively mild winter, and state officials attempted to mollify the rate hike through arrearage forgiveness or bill credits allocated from other funding sources or extracted from Rhode Island Energy by settlement agreement, the status has returned to quo.
Rhode Island Energy reported a big decrease in natural gas delinquents to the PUC in November, from 51,336 in October to 35,714 the following month, one of the lowest rates in recent years. But by January, natural gas delinquencies had risen by more than 16,000 households, putting Rhode Island right back to where it was.
Advocates say they aren’t asking lawmakers to reinvent the wheel. They say solution is simple: bring back the percentage income payment plan (PIPP) for low-income residents. Aaron Isaac, an organizer with the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center, told recently members of the House Corporations Committee considering PIPP legislation that the current programs designed to help marginalized communities afford energy bills do not go far enough.
“More people default on the arrears management program than complete it,” Isaac said. “Already in the last three months, defaults have outpaced program completion. I don’t want to seem theatrical, but I’m not joking when I say I have people crying on the phone because they don’t know how they’re going to pay their utility bills.”
Daisy Benitez, another George Wiley Center organizer, reiterated Isaac’s testimony that the current programs don’t go far enough.
“There are great programs the George Wiley Center has participated in, but it’s still not enough,” Benitez said. “People are still [having their utilities] shut off and that’s where you see the impact for how great these programs are.”
Under the legislation (H5847), sponsored by Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, eligible low-income customers would pay a percentage of their annual income — either 6% of 3% — instead of a flat rate charged by kilowatt-hour used. Who counts as low-income for the program is unclear, however; Rhode Island Energy told lawmakers that not all of their 61,000 customers classified as low income would make it into the program.
Advocates noted that low-income families in Rhode Island spend anywhere from 40% to 50% of their income on utility bills.
It wouldn’t be the first time Rhode Island had such a program. The state’s original iteration of the program began in 1986, carried out by the Governor’s Office of Energy Assistance, and the pilot program found that a significant number of households participating actually increased their payments for monthly gas and electric bills. The program eventually expired.
If passed, PIPP would be added to the state’s suite of utility assistance programs. Rhode Island prohibits utility shut-offs from November to April 15, if the primary heating accounts have arrearages of less than $500 and other accounts if arrearages total less than $200.
No disconnections are allowed on days where there is a heat advisory or excessive heat warning, or on Fridays, weekends, legal holidays, days before legal holidays or when the utility is not open to the public for regular business.
Rhode Island Energy’s director for government affairs, Nick Ucci, said the company was supportive of a path forward for PIPP that includes “PUC review of a proposed program design and ultimately implementation of any approved plan that aligns with the company rate case.”
In written testimony, Ucci specified the company be given a July 2024 deadline to file a PIPP plan for state regulators’ approval, so as to align it with the current utility rate schedule.
Slater, responding to questioning from committee members, said implementing the plan would have little impact on energy rates for other customers.
“What happens is if folks cannot pay their bills, low-income folks, elderly, and people on fixed incomes, what happens is they don’t end up paying it,” Slater said. “The program would allow them to pay. The utility company isn’t going to take it on the chin, they’re going to seek payment in the rate refiling. You’re going to pay one way or the other.”
Advocates stressed to legislators that utility rate hikes are an environmental justice issue, because with a greater reliance on renewable energy and electrification, higher rates in electric and gas end up having a disproportionate impact on the poor.
“No family should make the decision to pay utility bills or buy food or pay rent,” said David Veliz, director of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition. “We believe that no family should make that choice, and utility companies are run unchecked on the rates they are making people pay.”