April 10 - Bowing to the cold weather and even colder economy, Rhode Island's largest utility, National Grid, has voluntarily agreed not to disconnect low-income customers for non-payment until May 1.
The annual moratorium on shut-offs that starts Nov. 1 was scheduled to expire April 15, but Michael Ryan, National Grid regional president, sent a letter Wednesday to Public Utilities Commission Chairman Elia Germani confirming that it will extend the moratorium for two weeks for “protected status” gas and electricity customers. “Although the company will continue to send out termination notices, National Grid will not terminate service for these customers prior to May 1,” the letter states. As it turns out, the moratorium would have been extended in any event.
A motion to extend it was on the agenda for the PUC’s meeting Wednesday, and both Germani and Commissioner Mary Bray said they would have voted to extend it had Ryan’s letter not made the vote moot. That would have made the vote 2-0, as Commissioner Robert Holbrook was absent.
Germani said he would “rather err on the side of being cautious,” in dealing with the cut-off of shut-offs, adding that “I’m pretty sure that by (May 1) the weather will be more seasonable.”
Even now, Bray said Wednesday, “the weather is iffy. It gives people a little more time. Today it is supposed to be 60, but over the weekend it’s supposed to be in the low 40s or high 30s. I certainly would have supported it,” if it came to a vote. “It’s been a long winter.”
According to the company’s Web site, utility customers may have protected status if they meet any of several criteria, including being elderly, handicapped, unemployed, seriously ill, receiving heating assistance funding (LIHEAP) or if there is a child in the home under 24 months of age and there is a financial hardship in the household. Approximately 34,500 National Grid customers in Rhode Island currently have protected status. The moratorium will end on Wednesday for all customers who do not have protected status.
“The company’s decision to extend the shut-off moratorium until May 1 gives customers with protected status additional time to pay utility bills and make suitable payment arrangements with our customer service representatives,” said Michael F. Ryan, vice president Government Relations, Rhode Island. “However, during the moratorium we ask that customers make an effort to pay at least a portion of the gas or electric bill.”
National Grid took the action in response to a request from House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, according to a company press release.
Pawtucket’s George Wiley Center had put in a request to the PUC to extend the moratorium, according to Director Henry Shelton.
He said the principal reason was “the high number of unemployed workers.
“The majority of calls we have gotten lately about shut offs have been from people who have lost their jobs and aren’t used to getting a shut-off notice.”
Also, he said, this has been a particularly cold winter and the prices for heating fuel that skyrocketed last year “have not gone down that much.”
Source: Rhode Island newspapers