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Utility Triage: Restoration, Repairs and Expiring Moratoriums

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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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Extreme weather, last weekend, left many across the country without power.   High winds and flooding have taken out power for more than 200,000 residents in Michigan.  DTE Energy and Consumers Energy both reported damaged lines and outages. The utility posted on Twitter, ”DTE crews are actively assessing and repairing damage, and are working to restore power to impacted customers.”  In southern New England, Eversource and National Grid customers across Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts suffered power loss due to damaging winds and rain.  In central Ohio, American Electric Power and South Central Power reported more than 30,000 customers without power. West Penn Power and Duquesne Light reported some 50,000 without power in Pennsylvania.  In western New York, National Grid increased staffing across the region, to more than 2,600 line, service, tree, damage assessment and public safety workers.  "We brought in contractors and electricity crews from all over the northeast and Canada just to prepare for this type of event," said David Bertola, National Grid spokesman.  Further south, gusts at 66 mph knocked out service to Dayton Power and Light customers in the Miami Valley area.  

While crews are hurrying to restore power in each of these affected areas, utility companies still have a weighty decision to make.  Who will face disconnection for nonpayment? Currently, disconnection moratoriums have expired in 21 states, including many of the states mentioned above.  So not only are utilities incurring costs of unpaid bills, now several are facing the additional expenses of repairs and restoration after another unexpected event. Here’s where they stand right now. (Map of Disconnection Moratoria)

  • Michigan -  Continued suspending disconnections for non-paying customers on a voluntary basis but has waived reconnection fees and extended access to flexible payment plans.
  • Connecticut - Moratorium for residential customers ended on October 1 for non-hardship customers, and on October 31 for financial hardship customers.  Customers can negotiate payment plans as long as 24 months catch-up on overdue bills. Utilities also have the option to waive interest and negotiate past-due balances.
  • Rhode Island - Commission directed utilities to conduct outreach for customers with arrearages to discuss payment plans and related issues; directed utilities to suspend late fees, credit card charges, and interest until further ruling of the PUC.
  • Massachusetts - Department of Public Utilities issued an Order instituting increased protections for customers of electric and gas utilities and extending the prohibition on investor-owned utility companies shutting off gas and electric utility service to customers for nonpayment; shutoff moratorium ended August 31 for businesses and November 15 for residents
  • Maine - Commission ordered to end the emergency moratorium on utility disconnection on November 1, 2020. Commission policy is in place that limits disconnections during the winter for electric and gas customers between November 1 and April 15.
  • Pennsylvania  - On October 8, the Commission announced that the absolute utility service moratorium is lifted and disconnections may commence effective November 9; the order included several modifications to existing termination policies.
  • New York is one of the states that have not yet lifted moratoriums.  The law there extends moratorium on utility shutoffs for 180 days beyond when the state of emergency has been lifted or has expired (until March 31, 2021) for qualifying impacted customers; requires utilities to offer a restructuring of payments owed.  But for areas that have returned to disconnecting service, it may not produced desired results. It might temporarily stop the bleeding but some costumers may still be unable to catch-up. 

 

Theodore J. Kury, Director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, concluded that utility companies have these options:  (1) directly assign delinquent charges to customers (2) recover costs over time from all of the utility’s customers (3) turns bills into bonds or (4) ‘take the hit’, meaning utility companies foot the bill for customers.  Kury is confident that utility customers, taxpayers or investors will end up paying for it. All that regulators and policymakers will decide is how and when.

Restoring power storm after storm, utilities demonstrate resilience and determination to keep the lights on across the country.  But during this pandemic, how will utility companies stop the bleeding?  Once the downed lines are repaired and service is restored, which of the four options above is your utility planning to pursue?

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