A Note from Your People's Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye
The Time is Now
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into painfully sharp focus the importance of having utility service. Without utilities, we cannot comply with the safety precautions necessary to prevent contracting and spreading the coronavirus such as frequently washing hands. Whenever the public health emergency declaration is lifted and life starts to get back to the new normal, we know the financial hardship of consumers, who have fallen behind on utility bills due to unemployment and other conditions, will not soon end. That’s why OPC believes the time is now to zero in on ways to help consumers cope with this unprecedented public health crisis.
On May 4, OPC filed a petition asking the Public Service Commission (PSC) to launch an investigation to explore a full range of options to assist ratepayers to ensure life-saving utilities are maintained when the moratoriums on disconnections are lifted. The Commission opened an inquiry to examine whether OPC’s request has merit and will hold a technical conference to discuss OPC’s request within 45 days after the public health emergency is lifted. Now that the public health emergency has been extended through October 9, this means the technical conference may not happen until mid-November and a PSC decision on OPC’s request may not be issued until after Thanksgiving.
Aside from the petition, OPC has asked the Commission to establish a task force to develop relief programs to help consumers during and after this crisis. We believe the Commission should take definitive action sooner than later. Any delay in identifying solutions will prolong the economic crisis for everyone, including utility companies.
As we all continue to cope with the sea-change of “home-work” and “work from home,” I am pleased to introduce two new publications that demonstrate how OPC is steadfastly working for District consumers in spite of the pandemic, and how far we will go to extend our message that “OPC Can Help!” to new groups of consumers.
First, the “OPC Water Services Division 2019-2020 Progress Report,” speaks to our effort to bring online an entirely new division and simultaneously provide DC Water consumers with an array of support services where none had existed. The Progress Report highlights OPC’s first year as the independent advocate for DC Water consumers, a role mandated by DC Council legislation. The document tracks how the OPC Water Services Division (WSD) has created a voice for the consumer in the ratemaking process that residents and businesses have demanded for more than a decade.
We share success stories told directly by DC Water customers who received tangible benefits during our first year of resolving complaints and who have applauded WSD staff for their tireless work.
The second publication is a new Spanish language fotonovela. Styled like documents popular in Latinx communities, OPC developed “La Oficina de, La Defensoria Del Consumidor," to reach consumers who may not choose to get utility information from social media or from traditional government documents. The narrative explains the services available to limited and non-english speaking consumers
he fotonovela is the latest in a long line of documents OPC has developed to meet the needs of utility consumers where they are—in this case, in their chosen language. In the future, we plan to create more educational materials that share stories representative of the District’s diversity.
OPC warns DC consumers that utility scams continue to be active during the coronavirus crisis. Consumers tell OPC they recently have received a letter that appears to be from Pepco, warning of a past due bill. The company logo is displayed and the District’s “311” call center is referenced. The letter instructs the recipient to call what we've discovered is not a registered Pepco 800 number to arrange a payment. If you receive a questionable letter, OPC recommends you call the number on an older bill to check on your current payment status before dialing a suspicious-looking 800 number.
Remember, DO NOT share account or social security numbers, or any other personal information over the phone. Also be aware that all utility companies are prohibited from disconnecting your service during the current public health emergency. In addition, now and under normal circumstances, you would receive a disconnection notice in advance of any utility suspension.
If you suspect you have been scammed, call OPC at (202) 727-3071 to speak with a consumer outreach specialist who can investigate your situation. You also can file a complaint about a scam or any other utility concern at opc-dc.gov.
Agency Teamwork Turns Up Major Win for Ward 4 Senior
OPC’s Water Services Division (WSD) continues to produce financial benefits for consumers, negotiating about $70,000 in bill adjustments since OPC became the official advocate for DC Water customers just over a year ago.
In a recent case, WSD worked with DC Water and other agencies to get Adlena Williams almost $14,000 in financial assistance, including a $6,350 water bill adjustment. A caretaker of her teenage granddaughter, Ms. Williams had been threatened with disconnection for non-payment of a huge water bill that resulted from a leak in her home.
WSD Community Outreach Specialist Valca Valentine helped the Ward 4 senior submit applications and other necessary documents online because she lacked computer access. Ms. Williams reports that she can now afford her monthly water and sewer bill payments as a result of OPC’s advocacy, and the consumer adds she can focus on health issues she is facing.
“It’s just amazing how the Office of the People’s Counsel came to my aid and pulled all these agencies together,” said Ms. Williams. “Ms. Valentine was patient and helpful through the whole process. I am so grateful.”
OPC frequently partners with other District government and private agencies to bring positive outcomes to consumers. For Ms. Williams, Strong Families provided financial and case management support; the District Department of Energy and Environment facilitated Lead Service Line Replacement Assistance, emergency water bill relief and other aid. The Office of Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd and PC Godair Contractors also played critical roles in helping to make Ms. Williams whole.
Estimated vs. Actual Billing
In late May, a Ward 2 resident filed a complaint with OPC after he noticed his Pepco bill had been unusually high. Upon investigation, OPC's Consumer Services Division determined that his bills for about seven months were based on estimated meter readings. Estimated readings may occur when the meter is failing to transmit usage data or when the utility is unable to gain access to the meter. Utilities are required to make regular actual readings of your meter usage, and under the Consumer Bill of Rights, are required to allow consumers to report their meter usage data themselves after two estimated billing cycles.
In this consumer’s case, the meter was not transmitting usage data to Pepco, and therefore, an estimated bill was generated. Estimated bills are usually based on historic usage, weather conditions and length of a billing cycle. OPC requested that the meter be inspected and actual data usage be taken from the device. Based on the actual data, Pepco determined that the consumer was overcharged more than $950. As a result of OPC's advocacy, Pepco reduced his previous monthly charges from triple digits to double digits.
If you receive estimated bills for more than two billing cycles, or if you believe that your meter is malfunctioning, contact OPC at (202) 727- 3071 and request to speak with a consumer services specialist.
As the District endeavors to meet its clean energy goals, it's essential that Pepco and others are able to purchase electricity generated from renewable resources like wind and solar at competitive prices. Unfortunately, a recent decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency that regulates wholesale or interstate electric sales, will not only make that more difficult and expensive, it infringes upon the District's right to select the resources from which its consumers could benefit.
Under the Federal Power Act, the law that is the foundation for federal power regulation, states have the right to select the resources of their choice. This means the District can require a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable resources or resources located within the District. However, FERC has imposed a minimum price on state choices that fall under the PJM Interconnection wholesale market that serves the District and 13 other states. This bottom line means that energy providers cannot sell electricity below a certain price, even if they want to do so. The federal interference upends market principles that have lowered costs and lowered carbon generation. As a result, electricity from renewable energy will cost more and the resources the District needs to combat climate change will not be generated.
OPC will vigorously defend the right of the District to procure the resources its consumers need and want. Along with consumer advocates from New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, OPC has sought an appeal of FERC’s order at the U.S. Court of Appeals. Court action will likely kick off this fall.
A Chief is defined as a leader of people or a clan. And someone who carries the title of leader has earned it by working hard and possessing the ability to not only work with a team but to not be afraid to lead a team to victory. OPC is going on the record here to look no further to find those leadership qualities than in Chief of Staff Eric Coard.
This is Mr. Coard's second go-round at OPC, as he served as the agency comptroller in the early 1990’s.
Eric combined his business and basketball talents to play under the infamous late Coach Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville; and then equipped with an athletic scholaship, he went on to attend the University of Nebraska and earn a degree in business administration.
Along his journey back to OPC, Eric held leadership positions at Howard University and at key District agencies, including the DC Metropolitan Police Department, DC Public Library, and DC Office of Finance and Revenue. The native Washingtonian boasts that he's been happily married for 38 years and is the proud poppa of two grandchildren. When Eric is not “chiefing” around, he enjoys playing golf and building home projects.
OPC is advocating for consumers in the following cases:
Formal Case No. 1156: Pepco’s Application for Authority to Implement a Multiyear Rate Plan for Electric Distribution Service
On June 26, OPC joined in a Joint Response in Support of DCG's Motion for Relief in the Alternative. On June 29, OPC filed Joint Comments on FC 1156 and the proposed procedural schedule.
Formal Case No. 1154: Washington Gas Light's Application for Approval of PROJECTpipes 2 Plan
PROJECTpipes is WGL’s 40-year accelerated pipeline replacement program. The first phase of the program is completed, and the company is now requesting the PSC to approve its application to begin the second phase of the project.
On June 15, OPC filed Direct Testimony and Exhibits of Edward A. McGee to provide an expert opinion on gas and engineering issues associated with the company’s application.
On July 2, OPC's filed a Notice of Objection to Washington Gas Data Request. OPC objected to several of the company’s questions posed to OPC, on various legal grounds.
On July 14, OPC filed Rebuttal Testimony of Edward A. McGee. Exhibit OPC (A), to provide an expert opinion on the direct testimony filed by the other parties in this matter.
On July 20, OPC filed a Response to WGL's Amended Motion to Compel to OPC to explain why the company’s motion should not be granted.
Formal Case No. 1142: The Merger Application of AltaGas Ltd. and WGL Holdings, Inc.
On June 26, OPC filed Initial Comments on Merger Terms Nos. 6 & 79. As a condition of the merger, the companies agreed to file with the Commission a long-term business plan on how it can evolve its business model to support and serve the District's 2050 climate goals. OPC’s comments demonstrate that the companies’ plan is technically flawed and does not account for critical concerns of equity and affordability.
Formal Case No. 1119: The Joint Application Of Exelon Corporation, Pepco Holdings, Inc., Potomac Electric Power Company, Exelon Energy Delivery Company, LLC And New Special Purpose Entity, LLC For Authorization and Approval Of Proposed Merger Transaction/PEPACR2020-01-E Annual Consolidated Report.
On June 29, OPC filed Initial Comments on Pepco’s 2020 Consolidated Report. The Office provides an assessment and recommendations on the company’s annual report.
On July 6, OPC filed Opposition to the Retail Energy Supply Association’s (RESA) Dilatory/Defective Request to Comment. OPC opposes the request of a non-party to comment on a proceeding, on legal and substantive grounds.
RM1-2020 & Other Rules Practices and Procedures (& Ten Others)
On June 26, OPC filed Comments Regarding Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. OPC requests the Commission retain the current notice language set forth in section 146.1 in the waiver provisions the current Notice of Proposed Rulemaking provisions. Currently, section 146.1 provides that the PSC will grant waivers “after duly advising the parties of its intention to do so.” The Office believes the impact of removing the notice language for administrative efficiency unreasonably constrains fundamental due process.
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. Call (202) 727-3071 if your group would like our staff to "zoom in."
Clockwise from top left, Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes talks with Public Service Commission Chairman Willie Phillips, DC Sustainable Energy Utility Managing Director Ted Trabue, People's Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye and Department of Energy and Environment Deputy Director Taresa Lawrence about #Here2HelpDC, the joint agency campaign to assist utility consumers during the pandemic. See the interview on the Informer's WIN-TV Facebook pages
Clockwise from top left, Consumer Outreach Specialist Jean GrossBethel reports on OPC's response to COVID-19 at a webinar hosted by the DC Office of the Tenant Advocate. OPC's presentation begins about 14:30 in here. Assistant People's Counsel Anjali Patel outlines the details of Pepco's proposed multiyear rate plan and rate increase for members of UCAN, the Utility Consumer Advisory Network, including Graylin W. Presbury, President of the DC Federation of Civic Associations; and Micro Business Network Owner Soyun Park.