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COMMENTARY: Rochester can't afford RG&E's failures. We need public power.


EDITOR'S NOTE 2/24/23: The following essay was written by Darien Lamen, a council member at Metro Justice, and reflects the views of the organization's Rochester for Energy Democracy Steering Committee. Metro Justice has been advocating for for years for converting Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. from a private company to a publicly-owned utility, claiming that doing so would lower costs for ratepayers and make the utility more responsive to the community. That push has gained new traction recently amid a widening state investigation into rampant consumer complaints about RG&E's rates and billing and an unpopular proposed rate increase. The views and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views or positions of CITY or WXXI News. — David Andreatta, CITY Editor

During two recent hearings on Rochester Gas and Electric Corp.'s customer service and billing record, state regulators witnessed an outpouring of frustration and anxiety. RG&E ratepayers from across the Rochester area shared similar testimony about billing inaccuracies, unresponsive customer service, and expensive bills they struggle to afford.

The chief executive officer of RG&E in a recent essay in CITY suggested that calls for converting the company into a publicly-owned utility stemmed from “irresponsible allegations” made by “a very small number in the community.” On the contrary, the testimonials at these hearings reflect the lived experiences of people from almost every racial, socioeconomic, and generational cross-section of our area.

It’s comforting to know that we have the ear of state regulators, but it’s not the first time RG&E has faced regulatory scrutiny in recent years. In 2020, RG&E and its sister company, NYSEG, were assessed a $10.5 million penalty for "failure to adequately prepare" for 2018 storms. The following year, the state adjusted RG&E's and NYSEG's revenue by $3 million for failing to meet their meter reading targets. In response, the companies asked regulators for a pass, citing the pandemic.

Nearly two years later, it’s evident that missed and estimated meter readings are still a problem, with dozens of local news reports revealing the panic and hardship this problem and others have caused for our community.

Metro Justice supports efforts to hold RG&E accountable to the community through regulatory oversight. But in the meantime, we must also ask ourselves: How long can we afford to wait for RG&E to do its job? How long can we afford to be patient with a multinational corporation that extracts millions of dollars in annual profits from our community? And how long can we afford to remain optimistic that regulatory penalties will provide a meaningful check on a for-profit corporation with monopoly status across large swaths of upstate New York?

We have seen time and again how powerful corporations treat fines as the cost of doing business, while simultaneously working behind the scenes to lobby for more permissive policies and regulations.

Financial disclosure reports on file at the state Board of Elections show that the political action committees of RG&E, NYSEG, and their parent company, Avangrid, have contributed more than $180,000 to state and local political campaigns in New York during the last 10 years. More than half that amount was donated in the last two years, suggesting Avangrid has identified growing investment opportunities in New York’s state Capitol, city halls, and county governments.

Our reading of RG&E’s latest annual financial compliance filings with the Public Service Commission suggests that the company extracted $95 million in profit from Rochester in 2021. Not only do we think this money should be reinvested in our community, we think the community should determine where and how — from reducing rates and improving customer service, to building out more resilient and clean energy infrastructure, to providing better salaries and benefits for a workforce that is hired locally. By transforming RG&E into a local, community-controlled public utility, those priorities would become ours to determine together.

This is not a radical idea. In our area alone, Fairport, Churchville, and Spencerport have public utilities that consistently provide energy at lower costs than RG&E. Across the country, about 2,000 public power utilities provide electricity to 49 million people in 49 states, according to the American Public Power Association. The entire state of Nebraska is served by public energy utilities, and this year the state of Maine (where another Avangrid subsidiary is located) is considering something similar.

New York state law lays out a clear path for communities to take back power from predatory energy profiteers. We first need city and county government to fund an implementation study to sort out the technical details of the transition. Next, voters would have to approve the plan in a referendum. RG&E would then be condemned and legally required to sell its assets, the cost of which would be paid for — without tax increases — by the revenue generated by the public utility in subsequent years.

RG&E’s business practices are not a glitch in the system. They are a feature of multinational corporations that are accountable first and foremost to enriching shareholders. By cutting corners on staff and services while continuing to seek rate increases from state regulators, these corporations profit at our expense.

Rochester needs and deserves better. Nearly a third of Rochester residents live in poverty. More than 40 percent of city households are considered “energy burdened,” meaning at least 6 percent of their income goes to paying energy bills, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

No matter how much RG&E claims to contribute to charitable causes and organizations in Rochester, those contributions are a mere fraction of the company’s profits. Furthermore, unelected and unaccountable corporate executives are not credible authorities on what social services our community needs, nor on how those needs should be met.

Rochester needs sustained and equitable investment, not charity. We need investment in infrastructure, housing, education, good union jobs, access to healthcare, and much more. These are just a few things Metro Justice has been fighting for locally since our organization’s founding in 1965 as Friends of F.I.G.H.T.

During the two “Town Halls for a Public Utility” Metro Justice hosted with members of City Council in the fall, we witnessed something inspiring that should give us hope: people from around our area coming together across racial, socioeconomic, political, geographical, and generational divides to demand an alternative to RG&E and business-as-usual energy profiteering.

Rochester deserves an energy utility by the people and for the people that actually invests in our future. With a public utility, we have an opportunity to take back our power and decide together exactly what that will look like. It is time to demand energy democracy.

Darien Lamen is a council member at Metro Justice.