Commentary: A way New York can cut electric bills
Since 2014, New York has been pursuing ambitious reforms to its energy system. Collectively called Reforming the Energy Vision or “REV,” this process has propelled New York to a position of regional and national leadership. REV has put New York on a path to modernizing its electric grid, dramatically increasing renewable energy sources and giving consumers more control over their energy use and costs. With these cutting-edge goals, New Yorkers are right to think that the state is poised for an exciting clean energy future.
However, New York cannot hope to achieve its goals for consumers, energy efficiency, and clean energy if it doesn’t confront a stubborn problem: how to reform the outdated ways consumers pay for electricity.
One immediate opportunity is to reform the use of high fixed monthly charges collected by utilities. Also referred to as basic service charges or customer charges, these fixed charges are flat fees that every customer pays, regardless of the amount of electricity she uses. Across the country, fixed charges for residential customers typically range from $5 to $10 a month, but in some states — notably New York — these charges are significantly higher.
New York’s fixed charges are actually some of the highest in the nation. Acadia Center found that current average residential customer charges for major investor-owned utilities in New York range from $15.92 to $24 per month, higher than all neighboring states. National Grid has a residential fixed charge of $17 in New York, but only $5 in Rhode Island and $5.50 in Massachusetts. Central Hudson’s is even higher — $24, which it is seeking to increase to $25. Remarkably, New York’s fixed charges are higher than those in Wisconsin, a state that has been widely criticized for approving large fixed charge increases since 2014.
High fixed charges conflict with REV’s goals for a clean, modern, consumer-friendly electric system. They give customers less opportunity to lower their electricity bills by using less energy. This reduces the incentive to invest in energy efficiency and technologies like solar power. With less incentive to save energy, customers also tend to increase their electricity use, requiring utilities to spend more money to keep the lights on. Energy efficiency makes it easier for New York to meet its strong commitments to clean energy. When high fixed charges hinder new efficiency investments, they imperil those commitments.
High fixed charges also disproportionately burden low-income customers — directly contradicting goals for a modern, equitable energy system. Low-income consumers typically use less electricity than average, so they generally benefit from lower fixed charges. While a high fixed charge might still represent only a small fraction of a bill for higher-income consumers, these charges can represent a large portion of a low-income consumer’s bill, making energy costs proportionately greater for those on whom the burden is already greatest. New York needs electricity pricing that works to alleviate this injustice, not exacerbate it.
Connecticut, like New York, has high fixed charges, but with action from a broad coalition of consumers, labor and clean energy advocates, it has begun the process of reform. In late 2016, the residential customer charge for The United Illuminating Company, the smaller of Connecticut’s two utilities, was reduced from $17.25 to $9.67 per month. An upcoming rate case is likely to reduce the residential fixed charge of Eversource Energy, Connecticut’s larger utility.
New York should follow suit. While New York’s Public Service Commission should be commended for rejecting proposed increases in fixed charges since 2015, the PSC needs to take the next step and begin reducing utilities’ already too high fixed charges. In National Grid’s current rate case, the utility has proposed to keep its customer charge at $17. Acadia Center has filed expert testimony in that proceeding stating that a reasonable range for customer charges would be between $5.57 and $8.30.
A reduction to this range has broad and deep support. Recently, 52 organizations released joint principles in favor of reforming and lowering residential fixed charges in New York. Policymakers should take up this strong call to ease energy bill burdens for consumers and help ensure that REV’s ambitious reforms will succeed and benefit everyone.
Cullen Howe is New York state director and senior attorney at Acadia Center, a non-profit regional research and advocacy organization committed to advancing the clean energy future.
This op-ed was published in the Albany Times Union here.