“We’re committed to being here – we hope people feel that in their hearts.”
ROCHESTER, NY — June 21, 2023 — RG&E president and CEO discusses customer service concerns, proposed rate hikes, and smart meters with legendary news anchor.
By Don Alhart at 13WHAM:
RG&E and NYSEG are front and center once again, as the Rochester City Council votes on whether to fund a public utility study, following a recent wave of complaints against the company.
I sat down with the companies' CEO, Patricia Nilsen, taking a deep dive into recent news, including a rate hike request, smart meter installments, and more.
Customer service concerns
One topic that's been constantly addressed in public hearings and on social media is concerns over customer service. Nilsen said she feels her roots provide an insight into addressing those concerns.
"I am a 30-year veteran of the company, but when I came into this role 11 months ago, I learned that we really had lost a lot of our senior staff in our call center," she said. "In fact, 60 percent of our representatives had been with us for a year or less."
She explained that being forced to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic had a detrimental impact on that staffing group, but added the companies have since bounced back.
"We've completed our staffing," she said. "We still have the open positions because we want to make sure we overstaff. We have more than enough people in our call center, and we've increased and improved our training."
Nilsen said there's been drastic improvements in customer service since the beginning of the year, when many claimed they were left in the lurch over serious billing concerns.
"For the person who called and experienced that earlier in the year, if they called today, 90 percent of our calls are being answered in 30 seconds or less. Our requirement is 70 percent," she explained. "So, we're doing better than the requirement — that doesn't make it any better for the customer who had that experience, but that experience is changing."
A promise of change — and when challenged by questions, a pledge to customers.
"We're passionate about serving our customers and being part of a community, and we'd like to continue to do so," she said. "I know there's talk about municipal power, and we understand that our service performance has created an opportunity for that discussion to continue. We are turning things around."
Despite Tuesday night's vote in city council over the potential funding of a public utility study, Nilsen said her companies are committed to serving the community for the long-haul.
"We're committed to being here," she said. "We hope that people feel that in their hearts — that we really care about serving our customers and making a difference — that's why we're here."
Proposed rate hike
The hike is called the reliable energy plan, which would raise costs by $10 a month for the average customer.
Yet, many are wondering — how is it broken down?
"[We're] responsible for delivering electricity and natural gas to our customers, [but] as part of the deregulation across the state a little more than a decade ago, we had to sell all of our generation," Nilsen explained. "So, for people who know about Ginna, it used to be a power plant that was RG&E's, but it's not ours anymore. We own some small hydro plants here in Rochester, but other than that, we're a delivery-only company."
Nilsen said some customers have switched to other electricity or natural gas providers for supply, creating some confusion in the billing process.
"We purchase supply on behalf of our customers only if they don't go with another supplier, which they can, but it all gets presented on the RG&E bill, so you don't have to worry about paying us and paying someone else," she explained. "Because it's all on the RG&E bill, people think it's all us, but it's not."
During our interview, I asked — why is this a three-year plan?
"Our original proposal was a 20 percent increase over one year, which also meant we weren't able to really plan out an investment. With three years of this rate plan, it's less of an increase," Nilsen said.
She explained it's not all gas and electricity — trees and fallen limbs account for over half of power outages, and just as RG&E has been around for a long time, so has its infrastructure.
"We have underground circuits in wood conduit that are over 100 years old," Nilsen said. "We need to be able to maintain the equipment where it’s maintained, but when it’s really at its end of life, we need to be able to replace it, and those are the investments we have."
Those improvements will not only come to homes, but also different buildings and businesses in Rochester.
"We have plans across all of our service area to upgrade circuits, improve resiliency, and also to partner with a lot of our municipalities," she said. "For instance, the ROC the Riverway, we have a million dollars to help accomplish some of the city’s goals to really make the riverway a fascinating and fabulous place to be."
So, what will the future bring?
"We'll see what happens after we get through this joint proposal — it all will depend on what gets accepted, and then also on what the demands are of our customers, regulators, and the state," Nilsen stated. "We always take any rate increase very seriously. We want to avoid it, and we want to minimize that impact for our customers. So, I can’t quite say what’s going to happen in the next six years, but we need to be on the right path over the next three years to be sure we can make the investments in our communities and continue."
The shift away from natural gas
Planning for the future. It’s a big part of the rate hike and it goes beyond the actual cost and delivery of gas and electricity.
“It goes into improvements to our infrastructures. So doing things like creating tree wire so that wire withstands tree contact. Replacing circuit breakers, which a good portion of our circuit breakers are over 30 years old. Replacing 45,000 poles across the company because 20 percent of our poles are 60 years old or older. For us individually that doesn’t seem like it’s very old, but for a pole, that’s not a good place to be. So, it’s making those types of improvements, as well as doing some investments on the grid to help new businesses come, to help businesses grow, and for people who want to have an electric vehicle or have a charging station for an electric vehicle. All of that grid enhancement is built in there too, planning for the future,” said Trish Nilsen.
And that future includes a shift away from natural gas. State legislation, for example, requiring electric furnaces and appliances in new homes. So, should customers who depend upon a natural gas generator be concerned?
“Not at this time. And I think that’s what a lot of our legislators have really looked at. That particularly residents of upstate New York where we have extreme weather conditions. Having a back-up fuel source is really important. So, legislation to ensure that natural gas or propane, or whatever people need to use, has their back-up fuel sources there. And that also, for manufacturing. There are manufacturers out there, fairlife coming into Monroe County is a great example, who are relying on natural gas as part of their manufacturing process. So, the legislation will continue. Again, its thoughtful use of energy we are really asking people to make,” said Trish Nilsen.
The postcards are in the mail. The smart meters are coming. One of our viewers submitted a question with concerns about radiation and the safety of these new wireless devices.
“I think that’s a great question. And if you look at any of our smart meter information, we always cite our sources for any of the health concerns we are trying to allay with smart meters. It’s a system that’s in place nationwide. So, for those concerns, we already have radiations that are coming from your cell phone, computer, from whatever device you’re watching this report right now, that are probably higher than what the smart meter would have. They’re all within safe levels. And I encourage people, go to our website. Read our cited resources about this. Visit us at a smart meter open house. Let us allay your concerns,” said Trish Nilsen.
And if you still did not want one it will cost you an additional $12 a month. And why?
“You can always opt-out of the smart meter program. There is a monthly charge because we have to send someone out to read that meter, only every other month like we do today. But someone will come out, and the meter reading routes will be inefficient because we will be bouncing all over our service area. We will also have to maintain a billing system to be able to bill those customers. So, it is the cost of maintaining a legacy program,” said Trish Nilsen.
You can watch the interviews here.
# # #