Power to the People is a column by D. Maurice Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere.
D. MAURICE KREIS, Power to the People
Here’s a plea I’ve never made before in my capacity as New Hampshire’s utility ratepayer advocate: Please pay your electric bill! Ditto for your natural gas bill, if you’re a natural gas customer.
When Governor Sununu declared a state of emergency in March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of his first steps was to impose a moratorium on utility disconnections. But, at the request of one or more of the state’s utilities, he rescinded his order effective on August 15.
Disconnections have not yet resumed.
The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has asked its staff to work out some temporary, emergency changes to the usual disconnection rules. The PUC staff, in turn, has been negotiating with the utilities, advocates for low income customers (the Energy and Utility Justice Project of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, plus Listen Community Services from Lebanon) and us (the Office of the Consumer Advocate, which represents the interests of all residential customers).
In case it isn’t obvious, we need to relax the disconnection rules because the pandemic has left thousands of Granite Staters newly jobless and without income. Businesses are shuttered. Many people simply cannot work because their health or that of a family member is in danger.
Ordinarily, you can avoid disconnection by proving to your utility that you are on some kind of public assistance. At the very least, we need to add an unemployment claim to the list of circumstances that trigger immunity from disconnection.
On the other hand, if you can afford to pay your bill, you should do so.
Why? Because New Hampshire utilities do not excuse unpaid balances. Sooner or later, emergency protections run out for everyone. At that point, you must either bring your account up to date, persuade the utility to put you on a payment plan, or face disconnection and/or collections efforts.
The state’s biggest utility, Eversource, is seeking permission to start an arrearage forgiveness program (at ratepayer expense, naturally). But for now, the only legal way to get out from behind unpaid utility bills is personal bankruptcy. That’s the bitterest pill of all, and it doesn’t confer immunity from disconnection.
For these reasons, it is troubling indeed that a group of climate activists is urging electric and natural gas customers throughout New England to stop paying their utility bills as of September 1. The so-called “New England Utility Strike” is part of the “No Coal No Gas” campaign whose purpose is to close down the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow and end all use of natural gas.
The strike is both factually and morally flawed.
As the organizers themselves note, Merrimack Station hardly ever runs these days. What keeps the plant afloat are so-called capacity payments – basically, money the plant’s owners receive for making their coal boilers available to the grid when needed. These payments, subject to federal regulation, are embedded in the energy portion of your electric bill.
Not paying your bill will not relieve your utility (or your competitive supplier, if you use one) from its obligation to make those capacity payments — which, by the way, go to all of the region’s generators (including ones relying on renewable resources) that commit to supplying electricity when called upon. They also go to ratepayer-funded energy efficiency projects that add ‘negawatts’ to the mix.
Morally, there’s something deeply wrong about a campaign that seeks to take advantage of utility disconnection moratoria that were ordered around the region in order to help people in a state of economic crisis. “It’s possible that by going on strike we are building solidarity with folks who aren’t able to pay right now,” said Sonja Birthisel, who co-led the August 19 edition of the strike organizers’ weekly orientation session on the Zoom video platform. She should ask those struggling folks how much solidarity they’re feeling.
According to the organizers’ web site, “if the strike goes on longer than the moratorium in your area, it may be comforting to know that in practice, utility companies generally avoid shutting off peoples’ power, and usually give multiple notices before eventually doing so.” It’s literally cold comfort to those who truly cannot afford their bills.
During the August 19 session, the facilitators referred to a five-year, $249 million “contract” currently in place for Merrimack Station. Pressed for details, session co-leader Marla Marcum said that “a five-year contract is like a shorthand version of five one-year commitments,” and then alluded to the regional capacity auction, which determines the amount of capacity payments year by year.
Marcum said the auction runs “either four or five years” into the future but she would have to check her numbers. In reality, Merrimack Station and other generators make their capacity commitments (and lock in their capacity payments) three years ahead of time. “We don’t need to tell the experts how to do this,” said Marcum, by way of admitting she and her fellow organizers don’t really understand how the regional capacity market works.
It is worth noting that none of the leaders of the orientation session were from New Hampshire. Birthisel, an ecologist, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maine. Marcum, director of the Climate Disobedience Center, is based in Tennessee. A third leader identified himself only as “Jeff” and said he was from Somerville, Massachusetts.
Birthisel, Marcum, and “Jeff” deserve praise for stepping forward publicly and acting on their consciences. At least they have identified themselves, though their precise roles in the campaign remains undisclosed. The strike web site refers to nobody by name, nor does it identify any organizational sponsors beyond noting the strike is “a project of the No Coal No Gas campaign,” which likewise has no identifiable human or organizational sponsors.
People criticize the New England Ratepayers Association all the time for failing to identify its funders as NERA works to advance positions often associated with the utility and fossil fuel interests. But at least NERA’s executive director, Marc Brown, makes no secret of who’s leading his organization.
Unlike those utility and fossil fuel interests, climate activists are on the right side of history. Their frustration in the face of inaction among policymakers is understandable, but it does not justify a cynical gambit to take advantage of pandemic relief efforts. Instead, they should throw their energy into the national day of climate action currently scheduled for Tuesday, November 3.
I refer, of course, to Election Day.