The OPC Connection - January 2017

A Note from Your People's Counsel

I am happy to report that with your help, OPC met the challenges of 2016 and delivered measurable consumer benefits. I'm pleased to launch another year of advocating, educating and protecting DC utility consumers.

In 2017, OPC will continue to aggressively advocate for safe, reliable and affordable utility services for District residents in all eight wards.

We stand ready and able to assist consumers with billing disputes and service-related problems with utility companies.

We're fighting more than $100 million in excessive rate increases Pepco and Washington Gas have requested at the Public Service Commission.

OPC's Merger Compliance Team is closely monitoring the promises Pepco and Exelon made in the merger settlement to ensure they are kept. At the same time, OPC is preparing arguments against certain provisions of the merger at the DC Court of Appeals.

OPC's hands-on energy efficiency workshops are a hit among all ages. We conduct sessions at Boys & Girls Clubs and senior centers; and invite groups across the city to contact OPC if you'd like a presentation on how to save energy and money.

Underground Storage Tank (Image Source)

According to the US Census Bureau, more than 6,000 housing units are heated by #2 Fuel Oil in DC. While that may only account for roughly 2.5 percent of homes in the nation's capital, the number of homes that may still have an abandoned oil tank buried on the property is greater. Prior to the increased implementation of natural gas service, many homes were serviced by heating oil furnaces. In the case of some older homes, the oil furnace may have been converted from an original coal or wood burning furnace with the addition of either an aboveground (AST) or belowground storage tank (UST).

Larger USTs are regulated by the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), but smaller residential tanks of 1,100 gallons or less are exempt from regulation except if a leak has occurred. Many homeowners have already converted their home heating system to natural gas, solar energy, or other forms of renewable sources and may have have already had their oil tanks decommissioned. In some cases, though, a home could have been sold multiple times since the tank was last in use and it may be difficult for a homeowner to know if an underground tank is buried on their property. All DC residents wishing to remove their old oil storage tanks must apply for a permit through the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

If you are unsure as to whether or not you have a buried oil tank on your property, look for the following indications:

  • Buried copper pipes near your home's foundation
  • Visible oil tank fill or vent pipes in your yard
  • Large areas of dead grass or vegetation
  • Dark oily patches on the interior basement walls, which may be near small copper pipes

Consumers can obtain more information by visiting DOEE's website. As always, before starting any projects that require digging, consumers should contact the Miss Utility hotline by calling 811.

WGL was authorized by the PSC to modernize its natural gas infrastructure. This is a city-wide construction project, with the first five years approved by the PSC. The construction involves replacing couplings on main gas lines and underground pipelines. OPC understands the need for the construction projects to improve the safety and efficiency of WGL's natural gas delivery system.

However, during the past several months, OPC has received an increasing number of calls from residents complaining about poor workmanship, property damage, and lack of notice about WGL's construction projects. Additionally, residents in historic districts have raised concerns that WGL is not complying with rules governing construction in those neighborhoods.

An example of newly installed gas piping, protective bollards and unsatisfactory street repair.

Residents of Brown's Court on Capitol Hill and Hugh's Mews in Foggy Bottom have been particularly concerned about WGL's projects, which include moving meters and gas line cutoff valves from inside to outside of homes. Construction has caused some property damage and diminished aesthetics of historic district homes. According to company representatives, WGL only adheres to federal regulations that cover the Georgetown Historic District. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society has now weighed in on the construction issues, requesting WGL follow historic district guidelines, including use of decorative bollards to protect meters.

OPC staff has met with residents affected by WGL's projects, as well as WGL officials. In late December, the Office filed a petition requesting the PSC order WGL to immediately suspend work while the PSC conducts an investigation of the allegations. We have since heard from homeowners who are, for now, pleased that some work has been suspended following OPC intervention.

The OPC petition seeks a formal PSC investigation into WGL's meter relocation, ProjectPipes and Vintage Mechanical Coupling Replacement programs practices. OPC believes prompt action from the Commission is needed to prevent unsafe installation practices, and further degradation of District neighborhoods.

Most people associate "bundling" with layering up clothes to face the winter air. Bundling, however, also is an option being offered by many telecommunication companies that combines numerous products such as cable television, internet, and landline telephone services into one package to save consumers money. Some consumers may choose to bundle their services to combine all of their bills into one convenient statement. Also, providers tend to offer discounts on bundled packages versus individual services.

Bundling up: Not just for that kid from A Christmas Story anymore.

Here some important questions that you should ask before choosing to enter into this type of contract:

  • Is there any new equipment that must be purchased or rented in order to upgrade my services?
  • Is there an introductory rate? How long is the term of the contract? Does it automatically renew?
  • Are there any additional fees not included in the advertised price?
  • How will bundling affect my landline telephone service? Will I need to switch to fiber optics, or can I keep my copper service?
  • What are my options for cancellation if I am unhappy with the service?

Remember, the Office of the People's Counsel only handles landline service. Internet service is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment regulates cable television.

After the DC Council passed the Retail Electric Competition and Consumer Protection Act of 1999, the market for electric companies was opened to competitive or third party suppliers (TPS). Any financially secure company (bonded,) that is licensed by the Public Service Commission, can sell their products to DC consumers.

Pepco serves about 94 percent of all customers as the administrator for providing "Standard Offer Service" to every customer that does not choose a third party supplier. Each customer must "opt-in" or choose to enter into a contract with a third party supplier. This competition for electricity delivery is intended to offer consumers choices of suppliers that could result in a lower price or an option such as electricity generated using a renewable energy source, like solar.

The image below shows the electricity delivery system, and where Pepco and competitive or third party suppliers fit.

Regardless of whether you have standard offer service or choose a third party supplier, all customers pay the basic rate for distribution charges based on the amount of electricity they consume.

Customers considering choosing a TPS must get an accurate "price to compare rate" for the generation portion of their bill from both Pepco and the company offering service in order to make an "apples to apples" choice.

When choosing a TPS, be sure to read the fine print and ask questions about introductory rates, will rates go up after a period of time and are there cancellation costs after a contract period?

If you need help in comparing offers, please visit the Office of the People's Counsel website. If you believe that you were given erroneous information to sign a utility contract, contact OPC's Consumer Services Division at 202-727-3071.

OPC is Alya Solomon.

In our continuing profiles of OPC employees who work daily to serve District utility consumers, we introduce Consumer Affairs Liaison Alya Solomon

When she was growing up in Zimbabwe in southern Africa, Alya Solomon was skilled at navigating obstacles in equestrian show jumping competitions. These days, however, Alya has shown her skill at navigating legislative and political twists and turns in her role as OPC's liaison to DC elected officials, policymakers and community organizations. Alya came to OPC almost three years ago after a career in political organizing that included work with the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO and the U.S. Congress.

Alya was born in London, England, and as the daughter of a diplomat, she traveled to numerous countries, including Egypt, Indonesia, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, South Africa and Greece. She moved to the United States to attend the University of Indianapolis after beginning her studies on the university's campus in Nicosia, Cyprus.

After obtaining her degree in political science, Alya was drawn to the Washington area to jump into fighting for social change and progressive causes like living wages, immigration reform and rights for public employees. Because she witnessed the unfortunate wide gap between the haves and have nots in Zimbabwe and other developing countries, Alya is passionate about advocating for affordable utility rates for DC residents and helping to close the gap between the rich and the poor in the District.

Alya likes salsa and ballroom dancing-which she used to teach at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. If only she could devote more time to the dancing when she's not raising two young children with her husband at their home in Ward 5!

OPC is advocating for consumers in the following cases:

Formal Case No. 1137

Reply Brief in the Washington Gas Light Rate Case: explains why arguments raised by WGL are insufficient to support its proposed $19 million rate increase.

Formal Case No. 1115

Formal Case No. 1027

Technical Conference: OPC, WGL and other interested stakeholders discuss issues related to the progress of work and cost escalations associated with ProjectPipes and the Vintage Mechanical Couplings Projects.

Formal Case No. 1141

Emergency Petition for Investigation: OPC files petition to initiate an expedited PSC investigation into WGL practices and procedures in its meter relocation and pipe replacement projects, in response to public outcry.

Formal Case No. 1105

Compliance Review: OPC and PSC to discuss Starion's probationary re-entry into the District energy market. The sales and marketing practices of the third party supplier were the subject of numerous consumer complaints.

Formal Case No. 1138

Technical Conference: to discuss WGL's new billing system errors and remedies.

Formal Case No. 1139

Direct Testimony and Exhibits of OPC Witnesses: provides OPC witnesses' analyses of Pepco's rate increase application.

OPC became an independent agency of the District of Columbia government on January 2, 1975. Over the years, the Office has accumulated a large and diverse collection of historic posters, artwork, and memorabilia. Now, OPC would like to give our readers the opportunity to admire the collection as much as OPC staff has for years.

This month: OPC Web Site Retreat Flyer, Circa July 2000

What we love about it: After that whole "Y2K" scare turned out to be nothing, and we realized we wouldn't have to go back to using carrier pigeons for outreach, OPC decided to get serious about this whole World Wide Web thing.

You know something is serious when it's being presented by an entire committee.
The ancient ancestor of the USB port was something called a "floppy disk drive." The disks weren't always floppy, but they could hold a whopping 1.44 megabytes of data!

 

What we should be embarrassed by, but aren't: Believe it or not, more than half of the original web committee is still on staff at OPC, and most even know how to use the special features on their smart phones. That's what we call commitment to progress, folks!