The public power defeat in Maine is a lesson

Print More

Trish Nilsen is the president and CEO of RG&E and NYSEG.

The pandemic is over but its effects are still being felt across Upstate New York. Our supply chains aren’t the same, COVID is still with us, and staffing challenges persist at all manner of businesses.

Rochester Gas and Electric, like many long-standing Rochester businesses, grappled with these challenges. With severe staff shortages, turnover, and our decision to protect the health of our customers and our meter readers, we did not enter homes to read meters for several months, which led to estimated bills and confusion. We have made huge progress in improving our customers’ experience with us, hiring and training in our call centers and meter reading department, beginning the rollout of smart meters in the city, and unveiling new online tools to help with new connections for builders and customers.

Trish Nilsen

That work continues. The complaints from our customers have dropped dramatically as we’ve worked hard to limit estimated bills and improve customers’ experience. Yet in Rochester, a small group of people continue to distract from that forward movement by calling for a study on a public takeover of RG&E.

Last week, 70 percent of voters in Maine soundly rejected a proposal to seize the state’s electric grid and replace it with government-controlled power. This is one more piece of evidence that such measures, often filled with misinformation, are not in the best interests of utility customers and do nothing to improve service, but rather put the burden on taxpayers while raising rates, jeopardizing improvements, and arresting the transition to clean energy. (On Tuesday, Monroe County lawmakers rejected a proposal to allocate $1 million for a study of a public takeover of RG&E, but some who voted against it said they needed more time to consider the issue.)

During the height of our customer service challenges, we committed to making the needed changes to right-set our customer experience. Unfortunately, even as our more than 800 employees work to resolve customer issues and restore us to our tradition of being “always at your service,” there are those few who look to leverage past problems solely for the sake of a political agenda.

As an integral part of the Rochester community, we strongly believe that investing in economic development, job-creation programs, and the people of this community is the right thing to do. That’s why since 2019, RG&E has provided nearly $21 million in economic development grants to 230 business and community organizations. We are in our eighth year of partnership with Monroe Community College, providing more than $350,000 in funding for student aid programs impacting hundreds of students to support our next generation of leaders.

But we’re not stopping there—we will continue to invest in the businesses and people in our community and we project over the next five years more than $1.7 billion in electric grid investments will be made to further improve service to customers and reliability. In addition, our recently approved rate case will allow us to increase assistance to low-income customers by more than 30 percent.

These investments are just part of our commitment to the lives and well-being of our customers and community that includes investing in a clean energy future. We own and operate three hydro power plants along the Genesee River that produce hydroelectric power for Rochester residents. We support the state’s clean energy transition and are working with our local partners on a number of projects to move away from fossil fuels and bring this transition to reality. Such investments will also help us achieve New York’s clean energy goals, including 70 percent renewable generation by 2030.

Our strongest investment will always be the more than 800 employees who live, work, and play in our community. RG&E employees are coaching youth sports teams, are volunteer firefighters, serve on the PTA and on church vestries. Just in the last two months, we have been there for both Habitat for Humanity and Foodlink after both organizations were burglarized, providing $10,000 donations to each to make them whole in the wake of this crime. We compounded that financial assistance with volunteer events and our employees are helping both charities get back on their feet. RG&E also reached out to the Rochester Police Department to help in response to high numbers of car break-ins, distributing 2,000 outdoor lightbulbs to brighten our neighborhoods. In total, between the Avangrid Foundation, RG&E, and employee giving, we contributed more than $900,000 to local nonprofit organizations in the last two years.

These are undisputable facts that run contrary to the inaccurate and irresponsible allegations a very small number in the community have made against RG&E. These investments, which impact the well-being of our entire community and help reach essential climate goals, will be jeopardized by government-controlled power that some have raised as the misguided solution for current challenges with supply rates and customer service and will likely cost taxpayers billions to purchase. In 2022, RG&E contributed more than $180 million in tax revenue to local municipalities and the state that supports our local schools, public safety, infrastructure, and other crucial services in the communities we serve—this revenue and reinvestment would be lost if government-controlled power were to be realized.

Monroe County’s 2024 budget process is starting and there are some that will again rally for a study on government-controlled power. We encourage our elected officials and customers to pay attention to Maine’s example, where a years-long push for a government takeover of investor-owned utilities was defeated. Even in municipalities with public power, those voters said no to government-controlled power.

Our more than 800 employees will continue to remind our community about these facts while working tirelessly to improve customer service, modernize our grid with more than $1.7 billion in investments to meet New York’s climate goals, and continue to deliver the service our customers expect. 

Progress, investments, and an unwavering commitment to our customers continue to be our priority, just as we restore service street-by-street, house-by-house, when storms threaten our vital energy service. It’s what we’ve done for 175 years, and we don’t intend to let our neighbors down. The people of Rochester and Monroe County have trusted RG&E to provide the safe and reliable gas and electric service they deserve, and we will continue to earn that trust with not just words, but action.  

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]

10 thoughts on “The public power defeat in Maine is a lesson

  1. Oh and one more point about the RGE employees here in Rochester vs a Public buyout. If there IS a public buyout – the new public company will continue to need most of the resources already employed. I can’t imagine that there will be mass firings and layoffs. Those people will all still have a job, they just won’t be working for RGE. We still need lines run, trees trimmed, bills sent out and power usage monitored. Things like RGE promoting the arts – well that’s nice but we could also just tax people the equivalent that RGE provides to artists and dedicate that to public art, NOT influenced by a corporation but controlled by the people that actually are enjoying that art. With a 100 million in profits I’m pretty sure their support for NFPs pales in comparison to their income.

  2. Trish, I disagree with your reasons for opposing a public utility and I think your reputation is justified. You claim that things have improved, but I don’t see any evidence of that. Let me share my experience with your smartmeter installation.

    I received a vague notice in the mail, but no specific date or time.
    I got no warning before the installation happened.
    The installer cut off my power in the middle of a zoom call with a client, without checking with me first.
    I only found out about the installation from a tag on the door. He could have easily rang my doorbell and asked me to wait for a few minutes.
    I work from home and losing power unexpectedly is very disruptive.
    I can’t access my power usage data online, even though I have a smartmeter. This would help me manage my consumption better.
    I don’t know if you took a photo of the old meter reading to verify the accuracy of the billing. I would have done that if I had known.
    I should get a lower bill since you don’t need to send a person to read the meter. Instead, you charge extra for opting out of the smartmeter. That’s unfair and bad customer service.
    You want a 12% rate hike while providing poor service. That’s insensitive and tone-deaf. You treat this as a PR problem, while people suffer from power outages, overdrafts, and long waits on the phone. These are serious issues that persist.
    You need to focus more on serving your customers and less on spinning a false narrative. And stop hiring the cheapest contractors who always let you down.

  3. This was a very uplifting letter and good to know how much RG&E is involved with and doing good things for Rochester. I just have one question, Why is RGE owned by a company in another country? I don’t know the history of how that happened but the idea of it makes little sense to me. The name of RG&E has Rochester in it, not Spain. So in that regard, it is possible that grassroots efforts to change the ownship, even though it my not work, may be worth the effort.

  4. Those places that already have public power (Fairport, etc.) often did it from the very beginning. Taking over an existing utility is much more complex — I’m sure RG&E grid does not pay attention to town or county boundaries. How do you buy a portion of a line running down a road that crosses a county line? Also, the purchase price is going to be higher than people expect — the shareholders will expect (and the law requires) that they receive adequate payment. As much as I see the value in having a utility be under public control, taking over an existing utility is a heavy lift.

    • Massena NY got rid of their investor owned utility in 1981 and in the first year of their new public utility rates went down by 25%. Sacremento CA also created a public utility in the 1970s, and their rates and reliability are far better than PG&E. There are many other modern examples as well.

      Commissioning a study will answer all of your questions. It will come up with a plan of what assets need to be purchased and estimate what the price would be. It will also conclude whether it would be worth the purchase cost. We just need to commission the study.

  5. There is a huge amount of context missing from this PR-crafted message from an executive at Avangrid. I’ll list a few things I think are important here:

    -Avangrid owns RG&E, NYSEG, and Central Maine Power (CMP) in Maine. It’s strange the piece didn’t acknowledge Ms. Nilsen works for the same corporation that fought against the Maine campaign.
    -Avangrid and Versant spent about $40 million dollars on negative advertising attacking the campaign to replace CMP and Versant with a Mainer-owned cooperative utility.
    -The cooperative utility campaign didn’t get a single ad on tv, they were outspent about 37:1(!). Any political consultant will tell you those are practically impossible odds.
    -the New York Public Service Commission fined RG&E for failing to check meters. Every other utility in NY could check meters fine during the pandemic; only RG&E was fined.
    -CMP and Versant extracted about $190 million in profits from Maine every year. RG&E extracts almost $100 million in profits from their territory every year. Public and cooperative utilities don’t take any profits, all that money stays in the local economy.
    -This piece brags about RG&E supporting NY’s Climate Act, but RG&E has failed ever to produce a plan that aligns with NY’s Climate Leadership and Community Act. In fact, RG&E is only planning on expanding its fossil fuel infrastructure
    -Avangrid was part of a lobby group that fought against the 2019 Climate and Community Protection Act and even New York’s fracking ban.
    -Most public and cooperative utilities have revenue-sharing agreements with local municipalities so local governments aren’t deprived of property tax revenue.
    -An executive at Avangrid has no right to say what her employees’ political opinions are. I’m personally offended the author thinks as their boss, she has the right to say all her employees are against Metro Justice’s campaign when that certainly isn’t true.
    -Avangrid keeps saying they have a 175-year history in Rochester, but they only purchased RG&E in 2008.
    -This piece claims a small minority support having a public utility, but recent polling from Data for Progress shows that a broad majority of Americans favor having a public utility over an investor-owned utility.

    I could write more about all the points I find misleading or disagree with, but I’ll stop with one more point. The only reason Avangrid is splashing a bit of money around right now is to try to stop Metro Justice’s campaign to replace RG&E with a local non-profit public utility. RG&E sent so many people surprise bills for ~$10,000, sent illegal shut-off notices during the pandemic, continually fights to increase our rates to turn a higher profit etc. We need a public utility that keeps rates low, provides better service, creates good union jobs and meaningfully confronts the climate crisis. The only way to do that is with a utility that the local community controls, not faceless shareholders only concerned about turning higher profits.

  6. As you point out, privatization of utilities has generally not been successful – Fairport electric being a lovely, outlier example.
    thanks too for the exceptionally detailed and thorough analysis that Kent Gardner provided in earlier edition of the Rochester Beacon.

  7. The question remains, why is the CEO afraid of a public study? I agree that RG&E’s 800 employees contribute to this community, but there were more doing that before your very rich corporation took it over. As for a political agenda, the CEO is correct. The political agenda is to fight the privatization of everything in the public domain for over 40 years. The overall result has been higher costs to the public and a redistribution of wealth upward. Less wealth inequality and more justice are the political agenda. Based on what the conservative Rochester Business Journal printed several years ago, it has cost ratepayers about one and a half Billion dollars more since the purchase by Iberdrola, than the then status quo. If that is true this money could have been spent on infrastructure, greener energy, and keeping rates down. The taxes were always paid by ratepayers as far as I can tell. Are their large expenditures to help political campaigns? Maybe a neutral study by non-partisan experts will show the CEO is mostly correct and her position will be vindicated as credible. Why such fear of a study is the question that remains. This is not a vote on public or private, just a study.

  8. Trish Nilsen speaks of ‘neighbors’ in the business sense. Let us not forget that RG&E and its parent Avangrid have long supported the arts in Rochester and other non-profit endeavors, providing another aspect of care for its neighbors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *