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Utilities: Increasing Transparency to Reduce Scrutiny

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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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The recent demand for transparency may be linked to increased scrutiny of utility business operations.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) told Duke Energy, Southern Company, Dominion Energy and other utilities in the region to revise a recent proposal.  FERC has asked them for greater transparency on how the plan would work and how it will improve energy transactions in the Southeast. California’s Public Advocates Office is also taking a closer look at the expenditures of Southern California Gas Co., the country’s largest gas utility.  Complaints were made that in addition to fuel costs, customers pay for repairs to old power plants, construction of electric wires and gas pipes, subsidies for energy-saving lightbulbs, discounts for low-income households and shareholder profit margins of about 10%.  Earlier this month, Southern Company Gas launched its first-ever corporate sustainability magazine in an effort to increase transparency and share company goals.  Upcoming issues of the magazine will cover sustainability initiatives and reach stakeholders more frequently than previous reports.

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While increased transparency could belay fears about costs and expenditures, normal business practices do require utilities to use ratepayer money to cover various costs. However, regular audits are conducted to identify and correct any errors made. As the great debate continues about how utilities spend ratepayer money, many customers have been unable to pay their utility bill for over a year.  New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Tuesday extending the moratorium that prevents utility companies from disconnecting services to residential households and small businesses for non-payment.  It will run 180 days past December 31 or until the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted, whichever comes first.  Utility companies have bee instructed to offer deferred payment agreements without fees or penalties.  “The COVID pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on all New Yorkers, and as we get closer to the light at the end of the tunnel we must provide residents with the support they need to recover and rebuild,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Utility companies provide essential services, and we need to make sure they continue to provide them in every situation—especially to those individuals who have suffered the most from COVID and are struggling to make ends meet. That’s why New York was the first state in the nation to establish a statewide moratorium on all utility shutoffs during the COVID crisis and why we’re extending that moratorium to make sure every single New Yorker can continue to provide for themselves and their families.”  Ohio and Florida have taken similar measures to provide assistance to residents struggling to pay their utility bill. 

Becoming more transparent about daily operations is a great opportunity to create community for customers impacted by the pandemic but will it reduce skepticism among regulators and stakeholders?  

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