Laurie Wheelock is executive director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York (utilityproject.org), based in Albany. She spoke at a Philipstown Town Board meeting last month about Central Hudson’s error-prone billing system.
What is the law project?
We are a nonprofit established in 1981, around the time New York passed the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, the home of utility-related protections. We work on all utilities — electric, gas, water, telecommunications. I’ve been working in consumer protection since I was 18, starting with the New York Public Interest Research Group and then focused on housing, the environment and other issues for various state Assembly members.
What services do you offer people?
Like Legal Aid, we help low-income customers with problems — anything from “I’m behind on my water bill” to “My landline stopped working.” Then we advocate stronger consumer protections and do “rate cases.” That is, when Central Hudson wants to charge more, it has to file a case and we get involved as a party and advocate stronger protections for their customers. When you have any utility seeking to increase rates right now, I think it makes the public really nervous.
What are the big issues facing utility customers?
Affordability. In New York, we have a goal that no low-income customers will spend more than 6 percent of their income on their energy bills. We calculated that, on an annual basis, it’d cost $1.75 billion to help every low-income customer afford their energy bill at that level. But it’s not just low-income customers. We have people from all over the state calling who are moderate-income, or who run small businesses. A lot of people are experiencing difficulties paying energy bills right now.
How could we make energy more affordable?
We’re looking at it from a multi-pronged approach. There are existing assistance programs for low-income individuals that we want to strengthen by making them more efficient and easier to use, and to make sure that everyone is aware of them. The governor has some energy-affordability measures in her budget. One would expand the discount program to moderate-income customers. We’ve been doing a lot of debt-relief events — teaching people how to lower their usage and getting them in touch with resources that can help with energy efficiency. We’re having a lot of discussions with legislators and utilities about how to keep costs down. Right now, there’s federal funding available for utilities for things like transmission lines and resiliency.
We have a big energy transition happening. Will the challenges be the same or different?
A little bit of both. We’re active in those discussions. The state Assembly and the Senate have come out with their budgets. Each has energy affordability in there to some degree. We have these [renewable-energy] targets under the CLCPA [the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act] that we have to hit. We’re electrifying. Low-income ratepayers need to be a consideration in making sure they can make it through the transition. If that’s more attention, more resources, more assistance to help them electrify, that’s what we need to do.