Utility alters arrears credit program

As volatile commodity prices threaten to make summer utility bills as unbearable as the heat, Nation

As volatile commodity prices threaten to make summer utility bills as unbearable as the heat, National Grid is modifying its program designed to help customers pay outstanding balances.

The Public Service Commission Wednesday approved National Grid’s proposal to change its AffordAbility Program for low-income customers. Attempting to make it easier for debtors to receive arrears forgiveness credits, National Grid altered the program’s payment criteria to a monthly from an annual basis.

Under the old AffordAbility requirements, customers needed to make 12 consecutive monthly payments to receive a $250 credit at the end of that period. Given that many customers already burdened with debt failed to make those payments, they often dropped out of the program.

National Grid will now issue $20 arrears forgiveness credits to program participants each month they make a payment for up to 24 months.

In announcing the PSC’s approval, commission Chairman Garry Brown said the old program “has not been as effective as originally intended.” Louis Manuta, a senior attorney with the Public Utility Law Project in Albany, said the annual payment criteria had made AffordAbility “almost doomed to fail.”

The PSC-approved changes could boost participation in AffordAbility by 11 percent to 6,075 from 5,464. Its annual arrears forgiveness amount could jump 83 percent to $1.45 million from $789,000.

“We’re pleased that the commission accepted the proposal we worked out collaboratively with other interested parties to benefit our customers who qualify to participate in the plan,” said National Grid spokesman Albert Bianchetti.

Demand for the program has been growing as rising food and gasoline prices have wreaked havoc on consumers’ budgets. During the first quarter, 260,000 consumers owed arrears totaling $188.1 million in National Grid’s service territory, compared to 250,000 consumers owing $151.2 million a year earlier.

With summer electricity prices projected to be up to 66 percent more expensive than a year ago, the ranks of customers in arrears is expected to grow. But Bianchetti noted National Grid starting planning for program modifications two years ago — preceding the recent run up in commodity prices that has pushed crude oil over $130 per barrel.

“It’s going to be a very tough winter for everybody,” said Manuta.

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