With cold weather at the doorstep amid the COVID-19 economic crunch, utility watchdog groups are urging National Grid and county governments to do more to enroll tens of thousands of eligible ratepayers in a generous state program that offsets rising winter bills.
Enrollment in the state Energy Assistance Program, which offers discounts that seek to limit the percentage of a family’s income that goes to energy costs, always has been relatively low on Long Island, according to the watchdogs at AARP and the Public Utility Law Project. As of June, only around 10,363 customers were enrolled in National Grid’s program, which can reduce bills by more than $50 a month. The watchdog groups say enrollment should be three or four times that figure.
At the same time, more customers are struggling to pay their gas bills. At the end of September, 55,097 Long Island customers were more than 60 days late paying a combined $35.1 million in gas bills. That compares with about 40,000 in arrears of $21.6 million for the same month a year earlier.
One of the major problems, the watchdogs say, is that the gas company and county governments aren’t getting the most out of tools that would automatically pass information to the utility about customers who are participating in other safety-net programs that would automatically enroll them in the Energy Affordability program.
"If ever there was a time for the counties to help enroll people in the statewide program, now is the time," said Bill Ferris, a New York government affairs rep for AARP. "Things are trending in the wrong direction, and here there’s a great program. Why aren’t they using it? I’m assuming they want to do the right thing, but they are just not there yet."
John Isberg, chief customer officer for National Grid, said the company in the pandemic era has significantly beefed up outreach programs to customers across its operating region, and Long Island in particular. It’s not just making them aware of the programs that are available, but also targeting reminders to customers as payments grow later or arrears increase.
The company is now starting some collection activities, Isberg said, though shut-offs tied to COVID can’t begin until early April. "We’ve overcommunicated," compared to pre-pandemic days, and most Long Island customers — 70% on Long Island, he said — "believe National Grid is doing the right thing for its customers."
In a letter to both counties last month, Beth Finkel, AARP’s New York State director, said low-income residents’ struggle to pay their heating bills "has been exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic." She urged them to follow the path of regions such as Westchester and New York City, which conduct a computer file match four times a year on eligible safety-net recipients to forward to the utility to automatically enroll them in the program.
"This streamlined process results in more than 80% of Consolidated Edison’s and [National Grid New York City] income-eligible customers enrolled" in the Energy Assistance Program, she said, compared to less than 30% for National Grid Long Island.
Nassau and Suffolk respond
In a joint response to Newsday’s request for comment, Nassau and Suffolk officials said they are "committed to getting residents the discounts and lower utility rates that they deserve and are open to working with utility providers to ensure information is shared with anyone who is eligible. Both counties will be directing their appropriate agencies to work together and undertake a greater public awareness effort."
They noted the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance works with both Nassau and Suffolk County Departments of Social Services to conduct a data match twice a year and "coordinates directly with the utilities to help ensure those that are eligible are able to receive the Energy Assistance Program, known as EAP, offered by utilities. Enrollment is only automatic when ratepayers sign up for the separate Home Energy Assistance Program.
Richard Berkley, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, said part of the problem is National Grid.
"What we’re looking at now [is] that, despite having been told by the Public Service Commission that it had to increase enrollment" and having agreed to do so, "National Grid Long Island still hasn’t done that," Berkley said. He estimates that upward of 40,000 Long Islanders could benefit from the program, compared to the 10,363 currently enrolled.
Brittney Pietro, low- and moderate-income strategist for National Grid, said National Grid doesn’t have figures on how many would be eligible. She said she welcomed the counties’ increased commitment to help.
"We’re interested in improving" enrollment, and it’s "great to hear they [the counties] are working on that," Pietro said. "There’s always room for improvement in enrollment. We want to have all customers who are eligible enrolled."
How it’s funded
At present, the 10,363 customers on the Energy Affordability Program constitute a $1.6 million annual outlay, all of it generated from ratepayers, Pietro said. The total budget cap for the program is set by the state at 2% of National Grid’s Long Island gas sales revenue. Greater use of the programs would only maximize dollars that can be set aside from all ratepayers for the program.
"We’re aiming to really push as many customers as possible during the heating season so customers can receive" the program benefits, Pietro said.
One problem is that National Grid’s state filing for a rate increase, which would have increased staffing to help increase enrollment, has been stalled at the state level due to the pandemic. The rate filing would increase average monthly bills of less than 83 therms from 5.59% to 8.59%, according to testimony in the rate case. National Grid Long Island customers currently enrolled in the Energy Assistance Program would typically see monthly bill increases of $8.26, or 10.78%, according to the Public Utility Law Project testimony.
Energy Affordability Program (EAP): Provides discounts to low- and fixed-income customers. Contact National Grid at EAPLI@nationalgrid.com or call 718-403-2216.
Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP): Helps low- and fixed-income customers pay heating bills in winter. Annual enrollment starts Monday, Nov. 2. Go to MyBenefits.NY.gov, or, in Nassau call 516-227-7386; in Suffolk, 631-854-9935.
Home Energy Affordability Team (HEAT): Provides free home assessments to locate and seal up drafty homes and other efficiency measures, some at no cost. Call 844-375-HEAT (4328) or email NGridLIHEAT@clearesult.com.
Household Assistance Program: PSEG Long Island provides a discount on energy bills for eligible customers of $20 a month or more, nwsdy.li/householdAP.
Residential Energy Affordability Partnership (REAP): PSEG also offers a program to lower bills that provides eligible customers with free energy-saving appliances and devices installed in homes. Call 1-800-263-6786 or visit nwsdy.li/PSEGreap.
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