Gas, electric companies cut off 270,000 Ohioans amid pandemic and billions in profit
- May 18, 2022 2:20 pm GMT
Seven gas and electric companies in
After prohibiting gas and electric shutoffs for the early months of the pandemic, the
The shutoffs don't necessarily equate to a unique number of people who faced the shutoffs — some customers could have been shut off more than once. While a specific number of how many people faced shutoffs is not available, what's clear is those left powerless were the most vulnerable members of the population.
"I think, as a fundamental, the consequence of being poor shouldn't be enough to get your power shutoff," said
That same year, AEP (the parent company) made
Those arrearages comprise a mere fraction of the
Though the company reported a
What utilities said
Most companies emphasized that disconnection of service is a last resort that usually comes after repeated notices and despite assistance programs through the company or outside groups. Likewise, most said they reconnect customers quickly.
AEP, via its "smart meter" technology, can disconnect and reconnect customers remotely. Company spokesman
FirstEnergy, which last summer admitted in a criminal case to a
"Then as now, the last thing we want to do is disconnect a customer's electric service when it can be avoided by contacting our Customer Service team and explaining their situation," she said.
AES extended the length of its payment plans to 12 months, up from the usually offered six to nine months, it said through a spokeswoman. Its residential bills, she said, are among the lowest served by investor-owned utilities
"AES Ohio supports efforts and initiatives that focus on the goal of helping Ohioans remain comfortably and safely in their homes, particularly our most vulnerable neighbors," said spokeswoman
Hargrove also said
Upon enacting normal billing practices in the fall of 2020, the company instituted a "robust" outreach program to provide for interest-free payment plans and connecting customers to available aid programs to low-income earners, according to spokeswoman
"We have gone above and beyond to assist customers struggling to pay their utility bills due to the impacts of COVID-19," she said. "Of the customers who had fallen behind on their bill between October and
What PUCO said
By September and October of 2020, however, the
He noted there are important differences between parent companies and their subsidiaries. For instance, AEP Ohio or Toledo Edison (a FirstEnergy company) do not trade on their own common stock — their corporate parents do.
State law requires the PUCO to track customer disconnections on an annual basis. Given AEP outpacing all other utilities in terms of shutoffs, a state watchdog agency that represents residential ratepayers led a coalition of advocates that requested an investigation into AEP's disconnection practices.
"Electric utility service is essential to consumers, particularly when more families needed to be at home in the Fall and Winter months due to job loss, health issues, or school closures as a result of the pandemic," lawyers with the Ohio Consumers' Counsel argued.
"Access to utility service can literally be a matter of life or death."
The PUCO, comprised of gubernatorial appointees, denied the agency's requests on multiple grounds. The commissioners said they were "mindful" of the health and financial consequences of the pandemic. However, they determined that a suspension of gas and electric disconnections would lead to customers accruing larger debts and possibly not taking up available state and federal aid.
On AEP specifically, the commissioners ruled that the number of disconnections alone, without any allegation of a significant and persistent noncompliance, does not justify a full investigation of the company's disconnection, credit, and collections policies.
The PUCO also denied a request to require the utility companies to assess the impact of their disconnections.
"It is not incumbent on the energy companies to assess and analyze the impact of disconnections on any segment of their service territories, including at-risk populations, minority communities, and the working poor," the commissioners wrote.
The national picture
When the Democratic-controlled
The figure is a lowball. Because there's no central repository for the data, they went state by state to compile an estimate. Only 32 states (and
Their analysis also compiled CARES Act benefits by utilities, which are cited in this report.
"Looking at these companies profitability, the revenue, the dividends, the executive comp, it's really clear that they are all extremely profitable," Kuveke said in an interview. "And they're making profit off the ratepayers expense. The fact that they are allowed to disconnect someone without government involvement or oversight is inherently a problem."
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