In February, Karen Powell spoke to Rochester City Council to voice her concerns about Rochester Gas and Electric. She concluded by asking Council to allocate up to $500,000 for an implementation study for a public takeover of RG&E.
The remarks by Powell, one of 21 registered speakers who demanded funds to study a takeover of the company, were greeted with thunderous applause from those gathered in the packed Council chamber.
Across Monroe County, residents have flocked to town halls seeking action by elected officials. Two days before the February meeting, advocates pressed the Monroe County Legislature for $1 million to examine public power possibilities.
The interest in public power has grown as complaints about electricity bill discrepancies have skyrocketed. With utility rates jumping nationwide, many question why power providers are privately run in the first place.
Adding to the ire locally are RG&E’s proposed delivery rate increases. In filings with the state Department of Public Service, the company maintains the rate hikes are needed to fund the replacement of aging infrastructure, boost climate action programs, improve customer service, address inflation and the impacts of COVID, and improve operations.
RG&E also says it is working to solve customers’ issues. The company is rolling out smart meters to remotely monitor electricity usage and finding new ways to talk with customers about their problems.
Over the last several months, many area residents have complained about inconsistent billing from RG&E.
Marybeth Knowles, a Brighton resident, received a $5,770 bill in November for the previous month’s electricity. From November to February, she received 33 bills, which now reflect that RG&E owes her $1,800.
“It makes no sense, it’s outrageous. You can’t call them. The only reason I even made any inroads to stop my auto pay was to go in person to West Avenue,” Knowles told City Council at the February meeting. “It’s still not corrected. It’s been since November, and I know people that are going on and on and on with this much longer than I am.”
Ingrid Phillips moved to Rochester in 2021 and immediately faced billing inconsistencies. In November, she received a $174 bill; the next month, it jumped to $539. After she called the company and waited on hold for two hours, RG&E reduced the bill to $47 and gave her a credit of $84. The fix was temporary, however, Her January bill jumped back to $539; in February, it was $356.
“I feel I’m paying off a reverse mortgage. We need to stop estimated readings. My ring camera showed no history of any reading. I brought this to RG&E’s attention, and no one listened,” Phillips said.
Advocates, many of whom are associated with Metro Justice, argue that the billing inconsistencies hurt low-income residents the hardest because they do not have the ability to pay or the time to dispute an incorrect bill with RG&E.
In 2022, complaints over incorrect bills from RG&E and sister company New York State Electric and Gas soared 60 percent to over 4,700, more than the previous two years combined. The spike prompted an expanded DPS probe into the utilities.
“Ensuring customer bills are accurate is the singular responsibility of the utility, and this expanded investigation of RG&E and NYSEG will determine what went wrong and how will it be resolved,” said Rory Christian, CEO of the state Public Service Commission, in a December 2022 press release. “Our bottom line is simple: we hold utilities accountable for any billing errors and we will require the companies to hold customers harmless.”
A renter in the southwest quadrant of the city, Rachel Haver lives paycheck to paycheck and typically spends 8 percent of her income on utility bills. A year and a half ago, she stopped receiving bills for roughly six months and then an $800 bill arrived at her door. Unable to pay, she spent hours on the phone attempting to sign up for a payment plan. The plan was not processed successfully, however, leading to a monthly, multi-hour phone call with RG&E customer support, being transferred department to department.
“It made me feel like I was going crazy and sometimes I came away crying. All this is to say that it shouldn’t be this hard. I’m not trying to get out of paying my bill or deny how much I owe. I’m simply trying to pay my bill,” Haver told City Council.
Utility companies are natural monopolies due to the extremely high barrier to entry; infrastructure is extremely expensive to build. To balance the power of natural monopolies, governments establish regulatory agencies to oversee utilities conduct and pricing. In New York, the Public Service Commission—the DPS is its staff arm—oversees utilities and must approve any rate changes.
“It’s outrageous and unacceptable that utility companies are proposing the largest rate increase in recent history for more than 1.2 million consumers in Upstate New York,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement when the proposed increases were announced.
“The proposed 19 percent increase in electric delivery rates and 20 percent increase in natural gas delivery rates would be unrealistic in the best of times,” County Executive Adam Bello said in a March 13 letter to the PSC. “It is certainly not just and reasonable at this time and would compound the strain from the already escalating electricity and gas supply commodity costs.”
City officials have weighed in on RG&E’s proposed rate hikes as well, after activists launched a campaign for public power.
In a letter to the PSC, Rochester Mayor Malik Evans wrote: “Our community is being failed by RG&E. Please recognize that we are in a crisis. This frustration is not fleeting—RG&E has been divesting in our community for a long time. We need the PSC’s assistance and expertise to review their performance and to consider funding a study into moving away from RG&E in the near future.”
Increased revenues would allow RG&E to invest in replacing aging infrastructure, improve customer service, reach out to vulnerable customers and help to continue evolving the grid to “a more complex two-way power flow version,” according to its DPS filings.
“NYSEG and RG&E’s proposed plan to the Public Service Commission will enable much needed investment in the companies’ infrastructure, provide for a better customer experience, and provide benefits for the companies’ most vulnerable customers,” RG&E spokesperson Alexis Arnold says. “It also reaffirms the companies’ commitment to build more economic, social, and environmentally sustainable communities throughout the areas we serve. In short, it will allow us to accomplish our top priority, which is to provide safe, reliable electric and natural gas service to our customers.”
New York’s electricity is relatively clean, due to a complete phase out of coal and abundant carbon-free hydro and nuclear power generation. However, just over half of production comes from natural gas. This contributed to a spike in electricity rates after global oil and gas prices jumped as Russia invaded Ukraine, a New York Independent System Operator report explains. Disruption due to the COVID pandemic was another factor. However, the federal Energy Information Administration’s short-term outlook predicts electric pricing to start trending back down.
More than a century old, RG&E was locally owned until 2002, when Energy East Corp. acquired the utility for $1 billion. In 2008, Spain-based Iberdrola purchased Energy East. Another merger with UIL Holdings led to the creation in 2015 of Avangrid, the current parent company of RG&E.
Avangrid includes eight electric and gas utilities companies and various renewable electric generation companies with operations stretching across 24 states. Iberdrola, which owns 80 percent of Avangrid, supplies energy to almost 100 million people in dozens of countries.
RG&E has acknowledged billing issues and says it is taking steps to improve customer service. In early January, it announced that 120 new customer service representatives were hired in 2022, with more than 100 additional hires expected this year.
A month later, the company said with improved staffing levels its percentage of estimated bills dropped more than 63 percent from February 2022 to January 2023. Separately, RG&E and NYSEG said they were rolling out the second phase of a statewide program providing relief to residential and small-business customers, with the PSC approving $672 million in financial aid for customers who did not receive a bill relief credit in the first phase of the program.
But perhaps the most significant action to reduce estimated billing and improve billing accuracy is RG&E’s smart meter deployment.
Currently, RGE is working to install more than 700,000 smart electric and gas meters in the Rochester region. Smart meters allow for utilities to remotely communicate with the meters to monitor usage. Meters will be gradually replaced over the next three years.
The simplest measure of electric power is the watt. Utilities measure power consumption in kilowatt hours. One kilowatt hour is equivalent to the generation or consumption of 1,000 watts over an hour. In 2021, the average American household used 10,632 kilowatt hours, according to EIA estimates.
Traditional electric meters work like a car’s odometer; they are made of gears that spin as usage increases. They use an aluminum disk containing two metal coils creating an electric field. The field is sensitive to the current passing through the meter, allowing it to spin as electricity flows into a home. The magnetic field is sensitive to the amount of electricity consumed, so it will spin faster when more electricity is used, and spin slower as less is used. The aluminum wheel moves a series of gears, which spin the clock-like dials on the front of the meter, displaying the amount of kilowatt hours consumed.
The meter has no way to communicate this number to the utility, requiring a worker to manually read the meter and enter it into the system. Smart meters eliminate this requirement as electricity use is sent to the utility in live time.
Physical gears are replaced by three circuit boards in the typical smart meter. The metrology board, or measurement board, reads the flow of electricity through sampling the current traveling through the meter every 244 microseconds. After the chip’s microprocessor calculates the voltage and current, it sends the data to the display board.
The display circuit board processes and displays the data before the third circuit board transmits the data out of the meter over a radio signal.
The signal is sent through other meters until it reaches an access point that sends the signal to RG&E over a cellular connection. The meters make up a mesh network, allowing each to help send the data to the nearest access point to transmit the data.
Once the signal reaches the utility, it is decoded and uploaded to RG&E’s Energy Manager tool, allowing customers to observe their electricity usage in real time. To ensure data privacy, it is sent securely.
“All we see out there is essentially a computer board that sends us the information,” says Kevin Wachter, senior technical project manager at RG&E. “When it gets into our system on our side of the firewall, that’s when it gets matched with the customer account information for billing purposes and for presentation on the website.”
RG&E says smart meters will aid customers in several ways including improved outage response times, eliminating the need for power consumption estimates, and through making the process of activating or stopping service easier. Smart meters can be shut off and on remotely, but RG&E officials emphasize that strict guidelines govern the shut off of electricity service.
Consumers have the option to opt out of the smart meter replacement. However, they would be billed $11.56 each month.
Given the furor over billing inconsistencies and rate hikes, some have viewed smart meters as a solution. RG&E officials say plans to switch to such meters have been in place since 2007.
For now, RG&E continues its effort to educate consumers on its plans. This month, the company held pop-up events—one is scheduled for May 20 at the Lilac Festival—to help users with their needs. An April smart meter town hall in Greece drew hundreds of people who had the opportunity to speak directly to RG&E representatives about pending changes.
“We’ve heard our customers and their concerns over billing frustrations. These events are in response to those issues,” says Veronica Dasher, RG&E’s regional manager of government and community relations. “Actions speak louder than words and we want to show that when we say we truly are invested in this community, we mean it.”
Metro Justice remains unswayed. It plans a May 23 rally to press Evans to support its proposal for a public power implementation study. The group contends the city should not wait for the PSC to study the matter and claims Evans’ legal department is blocking Metro Justice’s proposal.
Time will tell if Rochester, and Monroe County, will heed that call.
Henry Litsky is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and photographer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].