Packet Online

Group Fighting Deregulation

The Princeton Packet / PacketOnline — Friday, August 22, 2003

By: Al Wicklund, Staff Writer

MONROE — Larry Weiner and the Energy Group from Clearbrook, veterans of an 11-year battle for lower electric rates, will continue the fight with a campaign against what they see as a flawed energy deregulation law.

The residents of Clearbrook, where there are 2,026 all-electric homes, are concerned about possible escalating electric rates. Mr. Weiner said most of the homes in two other retirement communities in Monroe Township, Rossmoor and Concordia, also are all-electric.

In 1999, the state Legislature passed the law that placed a cap on what energy companies could charge. The state Board of Public Utilities lifted the limit on energy prices Aug. 1 to put the companies in a competitive market. The theory was that competition would limit increases by energy companies deprived of normal increases over the previous four years.

The goals of deregulation ideally were to open the market for power generation to new companies, creating a competitive market that would drive prices down and lead to new and better services. The large utilities would retain ownership of the power grid and would get to charge for use of the grid, though companies could not be both grid owners and power generators. The caps were put in place to stabilize prices during the four-year transition period.

Mr. Weiner said Tuesday the problem is there is no protection for the energy companies' customers. He said the expected average 15 percent increase in electric bills could just be a start.

Wende Nachman of Citizen Action, the largest political watchdog coalition in the state with 100 affiliate groups, said the increases vary with companies and areas, but there's no doubt that prices "are going up significantly."

"Four years ago, when deregulation started we were promised lower rates and competition among energy companies. That's not happening," she said.

Mr. Weiner said companies would end up getting back what they may have lost in interest.

He said when the deregulation bill was introduced "it sounded good if you were a market-oriented person," but "you have to read the fine print."

Mr. Weiner said the Clearbrook group has joined "Pull the Plug on Energy Deregulation," a consumer group that will petition the state Legislature to protect the consumers.

He and Ms. Nachman said they attended a press conference held by 14th District state Senate candidate Anthony Cimino announcing the formation of "Pull the Plug."

Ms. Nachman said Citizen Action was basically in agreement with the group's thinking, but has not joined.

"We're looking for the same thing," she said.

Mr. Cimino said Thursday the message from the law is that it has failed.

"The energy companies' profits deferred for four years under the cap will now be collected with interest and the consumers will pay," Mr. Cimino said.

He also said not one municipality has chosen as yet to take part aggregation.

Mr. Cimino said he would like to see the deregulation law repealed, the Legislature go back to the drawing board, save what works for the residents of the state and develop a system that is fair and equitable.

Tom Breslin of the staff of 14th District state Sen. Peter Inverso, a sponsor of the deregulation bill, said Thursday said the electricity rates are at or lower than what they were in 1999 when the law was passed.

"It's not where we want us to be, but New Jersey has shown a gain in the ranking of state energy costs. The state was the eighth highest and is now 11, Mr. Breslin said.

He said the senator had asked BPU to delay the start of deregulation because BPU was late in getting out regulations for aggregation and had no time to educate the municipalities about the aggregation process.

"Sen. Inverso believes aggregation, municipalities negotiating for lower rates for their residents, is an important tool and deserves more attention," Mr. Breslin said.

Mr. Weiner said there should be some kind of state regulatory restraints.

Ms. Nachman said Citizen Action was interested in reregulation with some modifications still to be worked out.

Mr. Weiner said aggregation was designed to permit larger groups, such as municipalities, to represent consumers in negotiations with companies for lower rates. The clinker in the process was that municipalities had to contact all their residents who were the company's customers and companies refused to provide lists of customers because it would be a violation of the customers' privacy.

He said the issue, later resolved by a modification of the law, delayed aggregation to the point of preventing it.

He said energy rates are important to seniors on fixed incomes.

"When seniors get hit with cost increases they haven't planned for, it can be serious," he said.

Mr. Weiner said he expects it will be a long, hard fight before there's help for the consumer.

"The problem is there's a lot of money involved," he said.

Mr. Weiner said his group would like to get regulation of the companies back at some level.

"Were also interested in alternate energy sources. We're looking into them all," he said

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