Starting Monday, many Pennsylvanians could be vulnerable to utility shutoffs when a coronavirus-related moratorium that has been in place since mid-March will end.
Some protections will remain to help people keep their lights on and homes heated, though advocates say they are still concerned too many people are at risk of shutoffs.
Between the rules the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has put in place, available public assistance programs, and programs run by utility companies themselves, utility regulators say there should be assistance for those in need.
“We are very hopeful that that variety of programs out there will help address the needs as we move into colder weather,” said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokeperson for the PUC.
Fueled by COVID-19 and the shutdown measures to contain the virus, residential utility debt has increased dramatically, comparing data from September to a year prior, said Elizabeth Marx, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project.
The amount of debt owed by Pennsylvanians to their utility companies has gone from $432 million last year to $721 million as of September, said Marx, citing data that utilities provided to the PUC.
“That’s a significant increase year-over-year that quite frankly is unprecedented,” said Marx, whose organization aims to make sure low-income Pennsylvanians have utility service to their homes.
“I anticipate that the programs that are available for assistance will run out of money if all those people come in at the same time for assistance,” she said.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, Peoples Natural Gas estimates more than 40,000 residential accounts are at risk of termination as of October 15, an increase from less than 23,000 at the same time last year.
Duquesne Light estimates more than 102,000 residential accounts at risk of termination, compared to more than 92,000 a year ago, according to a PUC filing.
Early in the COVID crisis, the Public Utility Commission put in place a moratorium on shutoffs for the utilities it regulates. Even after Monday, there will still be protections in place for many utility customers, said the PUC’s Hagen-Frederiksen.
Anyone under 300% of the federal poverty level – about $78,000 for a family of four – shouldn’t be subject to a utility termination.
However, those individuals must provide income information, apply for available assistance programs, and request a payment arrangement.
Utility customers in need of help with their bills can apply to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), or to various assistance programs available through individual utility companies.
Officials from both Dollar Energy Fund, a charity that helps people pay utility bills, and the United Way's 2-1-1 social services hotline, say requests for utility help are down, likely because of the moratorium, though they anticipate calls will increase.
Many customers will also be protected from shutoffs starting December 1 through the end of March by a standard seasonal shutoff moratorium.
But Marx said it’s important for consumers to contact their utility company if they do receive a pre-termination notice.
“It’s just critical that you reach out to your utility, provide them with your income information, apply for those assistance programs and request a payment plan. If you do that, you will be protected through March,” she said.
The PUC’s rules only apply to regulated utilities under their jurisdiction. Other utilities, such as rural electric cooperatives, and most utilities run by municipalities or municipal authorities are not subject to the utility commission’s rules.
The public utility commission is also continuing to gather data from utility companies, said Hagen-Frederiksen, and will revisit this issue before the end of March.
“The commission has acknowledged that this issue is an evolving situation,” he said.