From pages 12-13 in February’s Public Utilities Fortnightly, excerpts from our visit with Pennsylvania PUC Vice Chair Andrew Place. See the complete interview here.
“How do we continue to drive competitiveness and keep rates low across the spectrum, but also make the investments that the twenty-first century requires?
I've got to take the fire hose of incoming issues. But I'm particularly interested in low-income issues. That's a real challenge here. Pennsylvania is unusual, in that our low-income programs are supported by retail customers, not by industrial or commercial customers.
It’s a smallish pool, and it's a pool that has also, itself, struggled. Think about all those people at the bottom end of the curve, or above the line to be supported by these programs, but they only have a couple extra nickels to pay.
Anything we do to help low-income households is going to be a burden on those folks, and many of them are going to struggle to take on that burden.
We've looked closely at the issue. We've got Penn State doing an analysis of energy burdens to see what is appropriate. Many of our neighboring states have lower caps on what is affordable. Is it six percent of your income, nine percent, twelve percent? Again, depending on where you fall on the federal poverty line.
Getting that benchmark, and knowing what is affordable. Some of the challenges I think we see is that many residents, they get in a payment plan, but it's not affordable. So, they have got a gun to their head. They're going to be cut off. They're going to become homeless, or lose their utility service.
What option do they have but to sign on the bottom line? But they're circling the drain. We'll see these folks again, twelve months, eighteen months on, further behind, and we haven't done them any good if we're giving them a payment plan that ultimately is not sustainable.
We’re really looking at those two pieces. One is affordable, and then, being able to design our low-income program throughout our utilities that balances as much support as we can, but at the same time, is cognizant of the impact on the bulk of the ratepayers.
Any solution is going to have to be holistic. Someone argued that we're not a social service agency, but in some ways, we inevitably are. Utilities are so fundamentally important to existence. It's an existential problem if you lose your utilities. In the nineteenth century, it didn't really matter very much.
If you're going to exist in our communities today, you need utilities, whether it's water, telecommunications, electricity or gas. The human impact cost of losing that is substantial.
Many of these houses and homes have children in them. What's the impact on child development? Do the parents become homeless, and move in with Uncle Fred? Do they move out of state, and then, that house is vacant, the roof starts to leak, and it's a public safety challenge?
So, the impact is not just on that household, but is more broadly on the community, and we have them throughout the Commonwealth, whether it's the cities or the small towns.
It's an all over the Commonwealth problem. I focused on those costs, although they're somewhat hard to quantify. The damage to our communities, to public health, to human health and development, and economic competitiveness, if we're not helping people to stay in their homes, and stay close to their work.”
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Steve Mitnick, Editor-in-Chief, Public Utilities Fortnightly
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