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BPU Considers Greater Energy Assistance for Poor Residents

Subsidies already add a significant amount to customer bills, a situation likely to worsen as utilities move to strengthen the power grid, roll out infrastructure for electric cars

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The state is examining whether to expand its popular low-income energy-assistance program, a fund that ensures eligible recipients pay no more than 6 percent of household income to electric and gas bills.

The so-called Universal Service Fund, along with other energy-assistance programs, last year came to the aid of roughly 284,000 customers in New Jersey, according to estimates by the Office of Legislative Service. That total, however, includes people enrolled in other energy-assistance programs.

With ratepayers facing a slew of higher bills, as utilities file to strengthen gas and electric grids, build out the infrastructure for electric vehicles, and pursue other initiatives, consumer advocates say it is time to see if the energy assistance programs ought to be enlarged.

“Fifteen years into the program in the face of rising bills and increasing shutoffs, we need to take a look at whether it is time to expand it,’’ said Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey.

Calls on BPU to investigate

Her organization called on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to launch an investigation and thorough examination of the state’s utility-bill payment-assistance programs, low income energy conservation, and shut off moratorium programs with recommendations for improvements.

The call came as AARP submitted more than 23,000 postcards from members expressing alarm over the more than $12 billion in utility filings pending before the BPU. Earlier this month, the agency approved a controversial ratepayer-funded subsidy that will help PSEG Power keep its three nuclear power plants open in South Jersey. Charges are already showing up on customers’ bills.

The state’s energy-assistance programs are funded by a surcharge on all ratepayer bills that finances a range of programs administered by the BPU — clean energy, energy assistance, nuclear decommissioning, and utilities’ uncollectible debt.

What it currently costs

All told, the surcharge raised $764.3 million in calendar year 2016. That breaks down to between $54 and $59 per residential household for electricity, depending on the utility, and slightly less for gas bills, which ranged between $35 and $47 for the typical gas residential customer.

Based on usage, the surcharge is much more expensive for businesses relying on huge amounts of energy, sometimes running in excess of $1 million.

If the state decides to expand the low-income energy programs, Liebman said it should not rely on current gas and electric customers to pay the added expense. “Perhaps it is time for the cost to be shared between ratepayers and utility shareholders,’’ she said.

As part of its outreach to stakeholders, the BPU suggested the public should weigh in on whether the current threshold for the UFS program should be raised from 175 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent. It also sought input on whether the current USF benefit cap be adjusted from $150/month ($1,800 per year) or be changed for certain types of heating.

In the USF program year from October 2017 through September 2018, 174,943 households enrolled, and benefits were provided in the amount of $115,682,693, according to Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the agency.

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