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State review of low-income utility programs may help PSEG customers

PSEG/LIPA power lines span the sky in Commack

PSEG/LIPA power lines span the sky in Commack on Dec. 2, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Long Island ratepayers are expected to benefit from a new Public Service Commission review of programs to help low-income customers avoid electric service shutoffs, following a year in which more than 16,000 Long Islanders had their electricity turned off.

At a commission hearing Thursday, the agency pointed to an increase in customers with overdue bills and an increase in terminations across the state in citing a need for improved programs to help those least able to afford soaring electric rates.

The PSC has no formal jurisdiction over the Long Island Power Authority and its system manager, PSEG Long Island. Instead, a regional branch of the Department of Public Service has "review and recommend" oversight of LIPA and PSEG.

But PSC spokesman James Denn said, "Although the PSC's jurisdiction does not include PSEG, the commission will look to share the best practices that are developed with PSEG."

Improvements that result from the review "will be provided to PSEG and we will look for ways to have it applied to low-income electric consumers on Long Island," Denn said.

Some 135,694 PSEG Long Island customers were $93.25 million in arrears as of November, and 16,159 saw their power turned off through that period, beginning in January.

For the full year 2013, residential shutoffs numbered 17,379, with arrears by 144,720 customers totaling $94.6 million.

PSEG spokesman Jeff Weir noted that 11,079 of those terminated in 2014 were reconnected, as were 12,944 in 2013.

PSEG already has several programs to help low-income customers, including the Home Energy Assistance Program and the Household Assistance Rate. They can be found here: nwsdy.li/1xND8Wh

PSC chairwoman Audrey Zibleman, in a statement, said the review she ordered will "assess the adequacy" of existing programs that help low-income customers pay their bills and avoid shutoffs. The idea, she said, is to standardize such programs across the state.

Watchdog groups praised the effort.

"New Yorkers pay among the highest average residential electric rates in the continental United States," said officials in a joint statement from AARP, Consumers Union, and Public Utility Law Project. "Consumers' struggles are evident," the groups said, noting that New York utility companies shut off power to more than 200 customers unable to afford their bills each day.

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