A lot is changing in how New Yorkers buy electricity, gas and communications service. About the only thing staying the same is that consumers have little say in decisions by the state Public Service Commission. Plans for a New York consumer advocate again face an uphill battle in the state Legislature.
We consumers are in a tough spot:
- Consumer choice when it comes to buying electricity and gas is an illusion. The new energy suppliers established after the state deregulated energy markets in the mid 1990s are proving too expensive — they lost 5.7 percent of their residential market share in 2014, probably because consumers realized their prices are higher than rates charged by legacy utilities like Con Edison.
- Solar and solar-and-battery home electricity systems and other emerging technologies will change the way New Yorkers buy power. It’s enough of an issue that the Public Service Commission has instituted a proceeding to consider the issues involved.
- Cable and phone companies have morphed into behemoth organizations hated by everyone. The state has promised to investigate the latest proposed cable merger, of Time Warner Cable with Charter Communications. But whether anyone in Albany really wants to do anything to make service better remains to be seen.
Some state legislators want to give consumers a place at the table when utility issues are decided. A bill passed in the Assembly by a 119-24 vote on June 10 would establish a state utility advocate office. The bill now lies in the state Senate.
Too bad if you think the bill is a good idea. All signs are that it was dead on arrival in the Senate. It’s failed to pass twice before, and Gov. Cuomo and the Republicans who more or less run the Senate have long opposed it. Cuomo has said the state’s Utility Intervention Unit, a group in the Department of State, does a good enough job pushing consumer interests. And the PSC says speaking for consumers is part of its job, so there’s no need for a separate advocate.
Yet Democratic legislators and AARP are trying again. “New York consumers already pick up the $10 million-plus annual tab for their utility companies to push regulators for rate increases,” said Beth Finkel, the state AARP director. She’s talking about this January 2014 AARP study, which noted that New York is one of just 10 states without an “independent, sufficiently funded utility consumer advocate office to fight rate increases on behalf of residential ratepayers or to appeal a rate increase in court.”
From the bill’s statement of purpose:
In other states where such an office exists residential consumers have seen drastic savings in comparison to the actual amount of funding that goes to these offices. California’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates lobbied over 200 times on behalf of California consumers and saved them over $4 billion in rates saved and increases avoided; in fact, they estimate that for every $1 spent representing and advocating on behalf of California’s public utility customers, the average customer saved $153 per year. The creation or an appointed advocate with the powers allotted in this bill would give New York utility customers a voice at the table [and] save them a considerable amount of money when it comes to the utilities they use every day.
New Yorkers stuck with some of the highest utility bills in the country would be pretty happy if a utility advocate could get them just half of that $153 in savings enjoyed by Californians. But it’s not going to happen this year. No savings for you! You’ll just have to hope the PSC and the utility industry have your best interests in mind.