The Michigan Public Service Commission opened a docket last week to review regulated utilities’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The opening of the docket, along with an order requiring utilities to report the number of currently disconnected customers, comes five weeks after Governor Whitmer declared a state of emergency across the state. In that timespan, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have issued orders of some type mandating that utilities do not disconnect customers for non-payment.
While the trade association for investor-owned utility companies announced that all of its companies are suspending electricity disconnects for non-payment nationwide, two utility members operating in Michigan – DTE Energy and Consumers Energy – have said they are only suspending shutoffs for non-payment for low-income and senior customers. Low-income eligible household is one whose income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, and a senior citizen is anyone 65 years or older according to Consumers Energy while for DTE it’s anyone 62 or older.
More than 1 million people in the state have filed for unemployment since March 15.
It is hard to come up with a precise number for how many individual customers are without service in DTE and Consumers Energy service territories since existing PSC rules require utilities to report quarterly on the number of shutoffs of service and the number of reconnections per month. But in response to an EPI public records request, the PSC produced the disconnection data. Data from 2019 shows customers, particularly those serviced by DTE, could be without electricity and heat.
In 2019, DTE Electric and Gas disconnected a total of 185,952 customers due to non-payment and restored service to a total of 141,715. Consumers Energy disconnected a total of 115,670 customers due to non-payment but restored service to a total of 135,952. (The utilities disconnected customers for a variety of other reasons, although non-payment was the most common. Those numbers sum the utilities’ reported disconnections across each quarter, so they may overestimate the number of total customers who were disconnected, since some customers may have been disconnected more than once.)
As the table details, between January and March 2019, DTE Electric and Gas disconnected 45,250 customers and restored service to 35,691. Consumers Energy disconnected 27,321 and restored service to 32,974.
Data made available by the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) reveals a similar story.
Duke Energy filed reports last week showing that its two electric subsidiaries in the state disconnected 10,000 customers in the 12 days of March before it voluntarily suspended disconnections on March 13. In February, the two subsidiaries disconnected almost 20,000 customers in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) published data on April 13 showing that 277 residential customers of the two Duke electric subsidiaries remained disconnected as of March 31, in addition to 210 customers of its gas subsidiary, Piedmont Gas. The NCUC data shows that during the reporting period covered, from April 1 to April 4, the Duke electric subsidiaries and gas subsidiary had not reconnected a single one of those customers.
Per last week’s order, the Michigan PSC now requires utilities to begin reporting the number of customers that do not have natural gas and/or electric service as a result of a shutoff due to non-payment no later than April 30, and every two weeks through at least June 30.
PSC Coronavirus Docket Orders
In addition to recognizing an existing data gap within the agency regarding disconnects, the PSC ordered the utilities to affirm in writing by April 20 that they are undertaking the following minimum steps:
- “Suspend disconnections for Michigan’s most vulnerable populations, low-income and senior customers, through June 1, 2020, and waive late fees for eligible low-income customers receiving energy assistance.”
- “Allow for customers exposed to, quarantined, or infected by COVID-19 to be eligible for an additional 30-day medical hold to suspend a disconnection service.”
- “Waive deposits and reconnection fees for low-income customers, seniors, and customers experiencing financial hardship related to COVID-19 and seeking restoration of electric or natural gas service.”
- “Extend access to and flexibility of payment plans to customers financially impacted by COVID-19 and provide customer assistance personnel with the resources necessary to connect customers to available financial assistance and social service agencies.”
The commission also ordered utilities to detail the actions that have been taken to reconnect natural gas and/or electric services for customers impacted by the coronavirus.
The Michigan PSC order is aimed at only the companies in its jurisdiction, but there are dozens of municipal and cooperative utilities operating in the state that are not regulated by the commission. Many of these electric and gas providers are operating without a suspension of disconnect policy, according to a Michigan Environmental Council report released on April 7.
Other states have recognized this issue.
On March 27, after previously covering only eligible low-income customers, the Iowa Utilities Board ruled that “all electric and natural gas utilities, including municipal, cooperative, and investor-owned, and all investor-owned water utilities are restricted from disconnecting any customers until Governor Kim Reynolds lifts the public health emergency.
North Carolina Governor Cooper similarly expanded a previous disconnection suspension on March 31 to all utility providers, including cooperatives and municipal utilities. The North Carolina order also suspended late fees, and mandated that customers “be provided the opportunity to make reasonable payment arrangements to pay off over at least a six month period any arrearages.”
In a bid to end the patchwork nature of the orders and pledges, over 800 advocacy groups signed a letter to Congressional leaders this week asking for federal relief legislation to suspend utility disconnections for non-payment through the end of the state of emergency, plus an additional six months to allow for families to recover financially. Language along those lines in an earlier House-drafted relief bill was not included in the bill that passed, which originated in the Senate, despite support from Democratic senators.
Unclear why DTE and Consumers Energy Have Not Made Stronger Commitments
On March 13, a Consumers Energy spokesperson told the Energy and Policy Institute that it was only suspending shutoffs for non-payment for low-income customers and senior citizens. DTE Energy instituted a similar policy the next day. DTE’s announcement read, “In the face of this global coronavirus pandemic, we are on high alert to help those customers whose lives are being disrupted. As a result, we are suspending shutoffs for non-payment for those customers who are low income eligible, effective immediately through May 3, 2020.”
Days later, on March 19, the trade association for investor-owned utilities like DTE and Consumers Energy announced member companies are suspending electricity disconnects for non-payment nationwide.
But on April 3, a Consumers Energy company spokesperson again told EPI, “We recognize many of our customers are unable to work or facing personal hardship, so we have suspended shutoffs for non-payment for low-income and senior customers March 16, 2020, through May 3, 2020 … At this point in time we are working with customers who contact us to say that they are experiencing hardships associated with COVID19.”
The utility’s website also reflects the policy of suspending shutoffs for non-payment for low-income and senior customers, and that the policy extends through June 1.
The company directs customers who have experienced a sudden loss of income or medical condition due to the pandemic to contact the utility to “determine eligibility for our payment assistance program.”
On April 2, a DTE Energy company spokesperson again told EPI, “We encourage any of our customers to call us as they may have unique situations that may not fit a broad policy.”
Featured image: An Itron OpenWay residential electricity meter with two-way communications for remote reading in use by DTE Energy at the Fairway Trails apartment complex in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. Photo by Dwight Burdette. Wikipedia Commons.