The Curious Case of the Missing Public in Dept of Public Utilities’ Hearings: A Reportback

In early April 2019, Massachusetts Electric Company and Nantucket Electric Company, each doing business as National Grid, filed a case to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU, Docket# 18-150) to raise rates for their customers and increase distribution rates by a net of $70 million.  These companies operate in 172 towns in Massachusetts, and service over 1.3 million customers. These rate hikes would cost the typical ratepayer extra $4.07 per month by National Grid’s estimates, although low income ratepayers would see a decrease of $1.68 per month. Revenues would be used to build new traditional infrastructure, cover a loss of profit due to loss of revenue and increased bureaucratic expense as homeowners and business expand decentralized solar and wind generation, and expand charging stations for electric vehicles.

Boston DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group and our #TakeBackTheGrid campaign oppose these rate hikes, as well as expansion and creation of fossil fuel infrastructure. These types of rate hikes are an entrenchment of outdated, carbon-intensive energy systems; rate hikes imposed on working class customers are used to bolster corporate profits, and expand private infrastructure that only benefits the wealthy, such as the contested pipeline providing gas to the luxury condos at One Dalton in the South End. We envision a publicly owned and operated energy system, one that is democratic, decommodified, decarbonized, and decolonized. We want a system that can benefit our communities at large without imposing financial penalties on people who are just trying to keep the lights on.

In response to the proposed rate hikes, we decided to attend the public hearings and make our voices heard in opposition.  For any of these types of rate hikes, the DPU holds public hearings in impacted communities, at which the public is invited to provide comment on the case in question. For this case, hearings were held in Lawrence, Brockton, Nantucket, Worcester, and Great Barrington. These hearings were all held in public schools in the towns in question, and all on weekday evenings.  We noted that most of these were not marked or advertised – several of us got lost at various hearings trying to find the venue. There were no signs, public flyers, or directions within the building that would help community members attend these meetings. We asked some of the DPU members at various times whether or not the hearings were made known, especially in non-English languages; we were told that an advertisement had been placed in local papers, but only in English (several of these hearings were held in communities in which a majority of residents speak a non-English language).  To our knowledge, National Grid did not notify their customers about the hearing, nor did the DPU attempt any other strategies to reach out to the community.

Unsurprisingly, the hearings were not well attended.  At the first hearing we attended in Lawrence, the person running the sign-in table seemed surprised to see anyone turn up.  At most hearings, DSA members made up the majority of the public in attendance; at no point were there double digits of non-DSA public attendees.  This was exacerbated by the fact that the hearings were restricted to English speakers only. The procedures were conducted entirely in English, no members of the board spoke or referenced other languages, and when a Worcester DSA comrade attempted to provide public comments in Spanish, they were told by the board that this was not allowed.  Translation services were not provided. Additionally, while microphones were available, at several points members from either the board or representatives of the utility companies declined to use them, thus making their comments/testimonies inaccessible to people in attendance.

The hearings were conducted by the DPU, 6 members of which sat behind a table at the front of the auditorium. National Grid sent several lawyers, as well as Marcy Reed; Reed is the president of the subsidiary companies in question, the regional VP for National Grid, and played a large role in the United Steel Workers (USW) local union lockouts due to her role both with National Grid and on the board of Blue Cross Blue Shield.  The Attorney General’s Office (AGO), speaking in defense of the public in these cases, sent different assistant AG’s to provide comment at separate cases.  Space was provided at the hearings for elected officials, but none attended. At several hearings, members from non-profit groups that advocate for electric vehicles attended as members of the public; the Worcester hearing also featured members of several local business advocacy groups.

Each hearing was initiated by the DPU board; they did not provide comment, but a member facilitated the hearings and provided context as to the background of the case, what the hearing would entail, and how public comments would be used.  After the context was set, National Grid was asked to provide a statement as to why the rate hikes were needed and what they would be used for. Marcy Reed gave nearly identical comments at each hearing, providing arguments that increased corporate profits are needed for the company’s financial health, and that increased rates would compensate for lost revenues due to green energy initiatives.  The AGO was then given space to provide commentary, and at each hearing argued that the hearings were an undue burden on communities and would result in undue rates of return on equity in comparison to typical utilities. After the AG spoke, elected officials were invited to provide comment – we’ve attended DPU hearings in the past in which national, state, and municipal officials have made comments, but given the public attendance at the rate hike hearings, no public officials showed up.

The floor was then opened to public testimony.  Several representatives of organizations advocating for increased electric car usage provided testimony, outlining that rate hikes would make it easier for National Grid to provide service to electric vehicles, and that this private expenditure would result in a net benefit to the community, as more people use zero-emission vehicles.  These groups spoke to the reduced emissions of electric vehicles versus gas powered, but did not address the sources of Massachusetts’ electricity generation, or environmental impacts of battery powered technology. At the hearing in Worcester, representatives from business groups also gave comments both in favor of increased electric car infrastructure (as this would increase traffic to Worcester) and against some of National Grid’s failure to provide service to new businesses.

Several DSA members also spoke at these hearings.  We spoke out against the inaccessibility of the hearings, and the undemocratic nature by which these decisions are being made.  Members commented on the fact that these rate hikes contribute to the parent National Grid’s profits, contrasted the burdens placed on ratepayers with the return on capital that National Grid is able to achieve in the state.  Comments were also made against the structure of the rate hikes, and the fact that some of the pricing structures built into this case would prevent additional hearings for 5 years. In some of the later hearings, we were able to provide counter commentary to the electric vehicle organizations, and explain the environmental costs of electricity generation, the space use automobile infrastructure, and the profits that National Grid stands to make on EV’s.  Additionally, the rate case provided an opportunity for written comments to be submitted at a later date; we were able to notify the chapter at large of this opportunity, and many DSA members submitted additional comments to the DPU.

Ultimately, we were able to come away from the hearings with several small victories.  The DPU members in general seemed surprised that anyone showed up to the hearing. Our presence made it known that these hearings are and should actually be public, and we were able to get members to attend every meeting.  Additionally, the assistant AGs seemed happy to see community members attending, and at one hearing gave us a thumbs up for our signs. On the other hand, Marcy Reed and the National Grid lawyers were less than pleased to see people speaking out against them, which is always a good result.  We also overheard a few of the less senior DPU members outside one hearing discussing whether translation services should be provided, and any progress towards accessibility would be a win for communities at large.

There’s also a lot that we can do better for future hearings.  The DPU often holds hearings like this in places that are difficult to get to – DSA could play a bigger role in transportation in order to increase attendance.  We could also do a better job publicizing the hearings to the public, as neither the DPU nor the utility companies are invested in increasing the level of public feedback.  The hearings were held in locations that were difficult to find, with no signage or directions available, and were woefully underpromoted to the public at large. Tactics such as flyering, social media campaigns, and coordination with other chapters and community organizations could all be greatly increased for future hearings in order to drive public engagement.  People should be aware that these types of hearings are happening in their communities, and that they present a material impact on their lives. In addition, any work should be done in multiple languages, as the DPU openly admitted to only making public notice of the hearings in English. We also should have better research for future DPU hearings as to the possible organizations or individuals that may be speaking in favor of energy companies, in order to have better prepared counter arguments.  Liberal organizations and astroturfed nonprofits are going to continue to speak in favor of large businesses if utility companies are able to advance some greenwashed measures, and we saw that early on when people working for some nonprofits spoke in favor of these rate hikes because of the provisions for electric vehicles. We should be aware of these types of arguments, and be able to counter them as soon as possible.

Overall, we see this as a useful future tactic for the #TakeBackTheGrid campaign, especially where we can leverage these hearings for base building work, and we hope to take what we learned from this series of hearings to make hold the DPU more publicly accountable and advance our campaign goals.

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