With most New Yorkers confined to the four walls of their home, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) signed a moratorium to ban all utility shutoffs in June 2020. The ban, which expired March 31, has not been extended which has led to local activists forming a union to protect Ithacans from utility shutoffs.
On March 24, the New York State Electricity and Gas Ratepayers Union was formed to prevent shutoffs, campaign for better service from NYSEG and eventually move to publicly owned power. According to their Facebook page, they aim “to serve as a union by and for ratepayers to protect our dignity and advance collective power.”
With people across the country spending more time at home and transitioning to online learning, which increases Wi-Fi usage, many Americans cannot afford to pay their increasing electrical bills.
NYSEG, the company that supplies electricity and gas to Ithaca, falls under the Avangrid company, which owns and operates eight electrical, natural gas and combination utilities in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New York. It has 902,593 electricity customers and 268,806 natural gas customers across upstate New York.
Although the end of the moratorium on shutoffs from unpaid bills end was a catalyst for founding the Ratepayers Union, organizers plan to expand the union’s impact beyond it. Short term goals include increasing awareness and contacting more ratepayers about their experiences.
In the long term, the union hopes to secure statewide public power and supports legislation moving New York State to publicly owned, renewable energy.
“One of the end goals or long term goals of the union is to ultimately not have to be a NYSEG ratepayers union, because we will have public utility instead,” said Ellie Pfeffer ’23, an Ithaca resident and Democratic Socialists of America member.
One of the first steps towards a public power system is community choice aggregation, which gives residents greater autonomy in choosing their town’s power supplier. These programs allow local governments to access power for their residents from an additional supplier, while still receiving service from their existing utility provider.
While this is a step in the right direction, Pfeffer still believes that public power is the end goal. The Public Power NY Coalition, a group run by the New York City democratic socialists fighting for a transition to more sustainable energy, plans to introduce two new legislative bills this year. Katrina Cassell ’23, another DSA student representative, expressed hope that Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-125th district) would support these two bills.
“It’s not enough to just have community choice aggregation,” Pfeffer said. “Really, we need to get rid of the profit incentive and that would require actually controlling the distribution ourselves.”
Cassell stated that attaining public control of power is a necessary step toward addressing the climate crisis, as well as protecting ratepayers.
“To do it in an equitable way, is to move New York State to 100 percent renewable, democratically-controlled, publicly-owned energy system,” she said.
Although the union was originally consolidated with the Ecosocialist Working Group, a subcommittee of the Ithaca DSA which addresses ecologically sustainable change in social and economic systems, the two groups now have separate meetings from each other. The union continues to develop and prioritize its own goals.
In New York State, as of March 24, there were over $1 billion in past-due utility bills.
The union has released a survey in which individuals can submit their experiences on NYSEG and their respective opinions on public power. They have also created a hotline to assist Ithaca residents with utility shutoffs and overall NYSEG issues.
“We’re definitely really hoping that [Assemblymember Kelles] supports that [public power] legislation and if NYSEG is interested in talking to us, we would do that as well,” said Cassell.