September 8, 2023

Avangrid opponents say a merger with PNM will lead to higher rates, worse customer service

A group opposed to a proposed merger between utility giant Avangrid and the Public Service Company of New Mexico released a report on Thursday alleging that Avangrid has a history of poor customer service, including errors in billing, and high rates.

State regulators previously rejected PNM’s application to merge with Avangrid, but that decision was appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The high court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case next week, which is scheduled for 9 am Sept. 15 in Santa Fe. 

The detailed report opponents released includes timelines of actions Avangrid or its parent company, the Spain-based Iberdrola, have taken that the opponents say harmed rate payers in the various utilities that the companies own.

“If Avangrid were to enter the state, New Mexican ratepayers might find themselves echoing a mother in a modest apartment in the U.K. when she complained to a local news reporter in February 2023 after moving into an Iberdrola/Scottish Power controlled unit: ‘No one told us it was actually going to be four or even five times what we had been paying before for almost exactly the same house,'” the report concludes. 

Avangrid Renewables, which is cited in the report as trying to charge Massachusetts utilities more than previously agreed to for wind power, is already operating in New Mexico where it owns two wind farms.

Meanwhile, Avangrid signed an agreement earlier this year with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to explore options for building up to one gigawatt of clean energy sources that can help bring electricity to areas of Navajo Nation that currently lack the infrastructure.

The report documents incidents that occurred either in Europe or New England in its timeline. 

That timeline starts in January 2020 when Maine regulators fined Avangrid and its subsidiary, Central Maine Power, nearly $10 million for poor customer service, billing issues and management failures related to the rollout of a new billing system. During that rollout, tens of thousands of customers received inaccurate or late bills, the report states. Ultimately, the utility also issued $300,000 in refunds to customers. 

The report also cites the Connecticut attorney general who filed a brief this year in opposition to Avangrid rate increases. His brief criticized the utility for requesting that ratepayers fund things like pet sitting services for Avangrid employees. 

The Connecticut Examiner reported that pet sitting was part of the company’s caregiver program, which includes backup care for adult or child dependents as well as pet sitting services like dog walking. Many of the employees already work a hybrid schedule that allows them to work from home part of the time.

Additionally, the report alleges that Avangrid, or its parent company Iberdrola, engages in aggressive behavior to collect unpaid bills. Opponents cite incidents where Scottish Power, an Iberdrola subsidiary, allegedly harassed people for unpaid bills despite those people not being Scottish Power customers. This was reported in 2020 by news organizations like The Guardian. According to the news reports, this was in part done because of misnumbered meters that indicated those customers were Scottish Power customers.

The Avangrid opponents further state that the company fights against renewable energy that it sees as competition. One example given in the new report is that Avangrid tried to “force unprecedented, costly upgrades on solar providers” in Maine.

“The timing of the issuance of this report is no accident,” Joanie Griffin, a spokesperson for Avangrid, said in an emailed statement. 

She further highlighted that the majority of parties that intervened in the merger case now support it. 

Nearly two dozen organizations including environmental and consumer advocacy groups intervened in the case. That means they were able to provide expert testimony and arguments for or against the merger. Only one of those groups still opposes it. 

“Rather than using false facts to smear reputations, parties to the appeal should simply let the Supreme Court do its job and head arguments and rule on the merits,” Griffin said.

She said Avangrid disagrees with the conclusions the opponents drew in the report and argued that many of the sources referenced provide false or misleading information.

Should the merger ultimately occur, it will not necessarily mean bills will increase. 

Rate increases must be approved by state regulators. PNM is currently seeking a rate increase. 

But, in 2022 alone, the opponents say utilities owned by Avangrid requested a total of $690 million in rate increases, many of which were opposed by state leaders including the governors of Maine and New York.