A Note from Your People's Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye
Focusing on Energy Affordability
The COVID-19 pandemic has been at the center of our attention for 12 months now. While falling coronavirus cases and vaccine distributions offer hope of better times ahead, there will be lingering uncomfortable truths to tackle. Health care disparities, the inequitable burden of energy costs, and the digital divide that all fall along racial and income lines, have many Americans reeling to make sense of what to do next. These fractures have exposed realities that were intuitively known but are now being quantified.
Thankfully, lawmakers and stakeholders are focusing on developing short- and long-term solutions to assist people in need.
To help understand the dynamics related to energy and housing challenges faced by District residents, OPC partnered with APPRISE, a onprofit researchinstitute, to conduct an Energy Affordability Study to inform and advise OPC on matters affecting energy affordability, particularly for DC’s low- to moderateincome households
APPRISE specializes in gathering and interpreting economic indicators that stakeholders use to better manage utility assistance programs and social services and inform utility company best practices. The OPC Energy Affordability Study consists of a Population Characterization Report that provides detailed information about low- to moderate-income household demographics, energy burden, and shelter burden. The report also contains a Survey of Programs that analyzes and compares the funding, program design, and program performance elements of energy assistance programs in the District of Columbia to those in other jurisdictions.
Together, these reports (linked here) help OPC fulfill its mandate to ensure that DC consumers have access to high quality utility services that are safe, reliable, universally affordable, and environmentally sustainable; and seek solutions that enable equitable access to energy. OPC looks forward to collaborating with community partners and lawmakers to further achieve these goals.
OPC’s mission is to fight for the provision of quality utility service and equitable treatment for all DC consumers at just and reasonable rates. Whenever a utility files for a rate increase, OPC goes to bat to fulfill this mission. This was no different with the rate hike proposed by the Washington Gas Light Company (WGL). After a year of zealous advocacy, OPC has negotiated a settlement that will deliver tangible benefits to WGL customers that could not have been achieved by further litigating the case at a Public Service Commission hearing. The Commission approved the settlement on February 24.
OPC’s persistent goal is to ensure that ratepayers are asked to cover only the cost of what’s necessary to provide quality natural gas service. WGL initially sought a $35.2 million rate increase. OPC was able to get that amount reduced to $19.5 million. This translates to a monthly 15% increase on the average residential bill, and it’s scheduled to go into effect April 1.
The utility also wanted to increase its return on equity (allowable profit) from 9.25% to 10.40%. However, due to OPC’s efforts, the return will remain at 9.25%.
OPC pushed for and achieved a higher Residential Essential Services (RES) bill credit for low income consumers, double the current discount, instead of a slightly lower credit WGL proposed. This is critical relief given these tough economic times.
Under the settlement, WGL must provide the Commission with an annual report on its greenhouse gas emissions. This is a beginning step toward the company providing a comprehensive picture of emissions associated with gas delivery and their impact on clean air and climate change. A top OPC priority is to ensure affordable service is provided in harmony with tangible steps towardachieving the District’s climate goals.
Finally, OPC was successful in challenging WGL’s controversial Revenue Normalization Adjustment that would guarantee WGL’s ability to earn its maximum authorized revenue by imposing an adjustable charge to customer bills. WGL has sought the RNA in the past, and OPC has fought it every time as a burden on consumers that is not in the public interest.
Times are Tough right now for many DC residents and that is why OPC created a straightand-to-the-point postcard encouraging you to reach out to our team for help with any number of bill payment services.
OPC wants consumers suffering through the pandemic to preserve their utility service and their credit by making a plan now to manage bill payments, or by taking advantage of assistance.
At the start of public health emergency, the District instituted a moratorium to prevent disconnections due to nonpayment of bills. Now, the city is making additional resources available for consumers struggling to catch up on utility bills. Immediate relief is available through the following resources:
The Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) offers financial assistance through its Utility Discount Program and the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Consumers can apply for LIHEAP online or download and print the application. DOEE programs include the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC) Residential Relief Program and the Nonprofit Relief Program.
DC Water offers eligible customers up to $2,000 through an Emergency Relief Program. DC Water’s other Customer Assistance Plans: Cap 1, Cap 2, Cap 3, SPLASH, and the Multifamily Discount Plan offer a variety of support.
Both Pepco and Washington Gas are offering extended payment arrangements. See Pepco's billing support options.
The Lifeline program provides reduced rates for local telephone service. To obtain a Lifeline application, call (800) 234-9473 or see: checklifeline.org/lifeline.
The DC Department of Housing and Community Development has created the COVID-19 Housing and Rental Assistance Program. Find the application here.
OPC advises consumers not to wait until you are in trouble--make a plan now, and contact OPC, other appropriate DC government agencies or the utilities to find the options for relief that work best for your household.
Under the #Here2HelpDC initiative, the Department of Energy & Environment, DC Public Service Commission, DC Sustainable Energy Utility, and OPC have teamed up with the DC311 call center of the Office of Unified Communications to widen public exposure to programs and services that will help consumers minimize the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic
Receiving transferred calls from 3-1-1 is not knew to the four agencies. However, we are increasing the connection to the call center to get more resources to consumers during the pandemic. The DC311 outreach is an extension the here2helpdc.dc.gov website. Learn more here.
"My husband and I wish to commend Jean Gross-Bethel for her expert assistance in helping us to navigate the application process for the New Appliances Program, sponsored by DOEE. Our furnace stopped operating around December 21. She advocated for us and ensured that our application was processed in a timely manner...Her responsiveness and commitment are greatly appreciated. Ms. Bethel represents the vision and mission of the Office of the People’s Counsel in a manner that serves your office well." From a Ward 4 Resident
"I was blessed with new AC, FURNACE, and updated water tank in January 2021...I have attached letters of appreciation for the lovely individuals [Jean Gross-Bethel of OPC, and Sharon Cooke and LaWanda Jones of DOEE] in hope they will be eligible for an award. The employees were attentive to detail, polite, hard working and wonderful! I just want to say "THANK YOU ALL." From a Ward 4 Resident
Legislative News You Can Use
OPC’s Water Services Division (WSD) wants DC Water consumers to know about a new law expected to be on the books soon that will affect customers who are disputing a bill. The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority Omnibus Amendment Act of 2020 is under congressional review, with a projected March 15 date of becoming law.
If the new law is approved, customers will have 20 calendar days after the date the bill is issued to dispute it as opposed to when youreceive the bill. The current cutoff is 30 calendar days from issuance. The billing complaint must be made in writing—a verbal call to DC Water is not enough.
The new law also would require OPC’s contact information to be listed on water bills and on DC Water’s website.
Meet Stephen Dudek
The Office of the People’s Counsel started this new year with not only a new way of serving consumers, but with new staff on board as well. OPC’s newest addition is Stephen Dudek.
Here for just two months, Stephen has already "made a splash" as Manager of the Water Services Division (WSD). Stephen comes to OPC with a wealth of knowledge and experience in consumer outreach. Previously, he worked as Attorney Advisor and Educational Outreach Program Coordinator at the DCOffice of the Tenant Advocate. Stephen plans to broaden WSD’s outreach efforts by hosting informative presentations on key water-related issues. He says his goal is to: “help ensure all water consumers in Washington, DC are receiving reliable, safe and affordable water services that they are all entitled to as paying customers.”
The middle child of three brothers, Stephen grew up in Middleboro, Massachusetts. He earned his undergraduate degree from Stonehill College and a law degree from UMASS School of Law. Stephen moved to the District with his wife in 2016 but is quick to point out that just because he has relocated to the south, does not mean in any way he left behind his love for all Boston sports teams. Stephen grew up a Tom Brady fan and admits to still being an avid fan of the QB even though Brady has moved way down south to champion another team.
Besides watching football, Stephen enjoys watching his 2-year-old son grow up and traveling with the family to Martha’s Vineyard. He also jumps into an occasional pickup basketball game, and of course, cheers for the Celtics. OPC looks forward to teaming-up with Stephen to score wins for water consumers, as he "gets his feet wet" in WSD!
Learn about Lewis Latimer, a pioneer responsible for groundbreaking inventions in electricity, telecommunications, and water. Watch this.
Read about a sports trailblazer, OPC's own Public Information Officer, Doxie McCoy. Scroll down in this linked article for the "McCoy File."
Making an Educated Solar Decision
More and more solar systems are being installed on the roofs of our neighbors, friends and families, your houses of worship and small businesses in the DMV and beyond. How did they do it, you wonder, and can I do the same on my roof? The answer is, yes, you can!
To install solar, you must first understand what is solar, how it works, what to consider when deciding if this growing renewable energy source is for you. OPC's Consumer Guide to Going Solar walks you through the “ABCs” of solar in simple, consumer-friendly language. In addition, an OPC Energy Efficiency staffer is available at (202) 727-3071 to answer your solar questions.
Here are some things you must consider before deciding to go solar:
- Is the solar company licensed and permitted to do business in the District?
- Are their salespersons knowledgeable and able to answer questions to your satisfaction?
- Do they misrepresent their product as being what it’s not?
The cost of solar has fallen considerably over the years because of higher demand throughout the United States and abroad. The average residential installation ranges from $17,760 to $23,828 after federal solar tax credit, with an average per watt price from $2.40 to $3.22. (See: www.energysage.com). Never pay for a system that is above the market price, always check the fine print and get more than one quote.
Happy Solar Journey!
OPC is advocating for consumers in the following cases:
RM 41-2020-02, 15 DCMR Chapter 41: District of Columbia Standard Offer of Service Rules, Second Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
On February 1, OPC filed comments regarding Amended Revisions to the Standard Offer of Service Rules.
RM 40-2020-01, 15 DCMR Chapter 40: District of Columbia – District of Columbia Small Generator Interconnection Rules.
On February 16, OPC filed Comments to the Second Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Containing Proposed Amendments to Chapter 40 of Title 15.
During the COVID-19 crisis, OPC welcomes the opportunity to speak at your Advisory Neighborhood Commission, civic association or community group meeting. We can give updates on utility issues and tell how we are continuing to serve during the pandemic via telework. Call (202) 727-3071 if your group would like our staff to "zoom in."
People's Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye, Water Services Attorney GraceSoderberg, and Environmental and Climate Attorney Sarah Kogel-Smucker give key utility issues updates at the Ward 3 Democrats meeting.
Staff from #Here2HelpDC agencies assist the Living Classrooms James C. Dent Community Center in Ward 6 at a food and lightbulb distribution. Signify Lighting Company donated the energy efficient bulbs and the agencies provided information on where to find help to pay utility bills.
Deputy People's Counsel Karen Sistrunk (2nd row, 2nd from left) was a panelist for a forum on bringing renewable energy technologies to minority communities, sponsored by the American Association of African Americans in Energy.