Despite state policies and corporate commitments to protect customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, North Carolina’s utilities have reconnected only a small number of the hundreds of electric and gas accounts that they had disconnected for non-payment before the end of March, according to data the companies filed with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. The data show that together, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, and Piedmont Natural Gas reconnected just 10 residential customers accounts in April; all utilities statewide that disclosed data to state officials reported fewer than 70 total electric and gas reconnections.

The data filed with the North Carolina Utilities Commission account for, on average, only 20% of the state’s utility service providers, indicating that many more residents may remain without power or water.

NC state policy, utility company pledges supposed to protect customers amid pandemic

In response to economic hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) ordered a moratorium on disconnections by regulated electric, gas, water, and wastewater utilities effective March 19. The Commission order additionally waived late fees, established a six-month grace period for bill repayment after North Carolina’s state of emergency is lifted, and removed restrictions on reconnecting previously disconnected utility customers.

Governor Roy Cooper expanded these protections through Executive Order 124 on March 31. That order “encouraged” all electric, gas, water, and wastewater utilities “to reconnect previously disconnected service to the extent practicable” to customers who had been shut off, and to waive any associated penalties or fees. The order further expanded in scope to cover utilities not regulated by the NCUC, such as the state’s 26 electric cooperatives serving two and a half million North Carolinians.

Cooper’s order also requires weekly reporting by utilities of data pertinent to disconnections and fees, to be filed with the NCUC. The Commission announced the transitioning to a monthly reporting requirement on May 4, with reports covering the month of April due May 12.

Duke Energy and Dominion Energy had each made voluntary commitments in mid-March to suspend disconnections and to reconnect previously shut off customers upon request. Duke also committed to suspending certain payment fees. Customers of its Carolinas gas subsidiary, Piedmont Natural Gas, are likewise covered by these policies.

Reconnections are few, as many remain shut off

Despite the executive order “encouraging” reconnections and the company commitments, actual electric and gas reconnections remain low across North Carolina, according to the data filed with the NCUC.

Between April 1-25, utilities statewide reconnected only 36 residential electric and 32 residential gas accounts, the filings show. At least 2,100 residential electric, gas, water, or wastewater customers remained disconnected as of March 31.

Investor-owned utilities accounted for a significant number of the unaddressed disconnections. Duke and Piedmont failed to reconnect a single residential customer account between April 1-25, according to the data submitted; Dominion said it reconnected 10 customers. Duke reported that as many as 450 residential electric customers in its North Carolina service territories remained shut off as of March 31 – though the figures it provided each week of reporting have fluctuated significantly. Dominion said that 97 of its residential electric customers remained disconnected as of the same date, with Piedmont reporting 210 remaining residential shutoffs.

A Duke spokesperson said that the number of customers to whom it has restored service may be higher than the zero that the company reported to the Commission. Paige Layne told the Energy and Policy Institute via phone that customer accounts shut off due to non-payment before March 13 may have been closed in the intervening weeks. If a customer contacted the utility to get reconnected in April, the new account created to restore their service would not register toward the reconnections figure Duke reported to the NCUC, Layne said.

Layne described in an email how varying reporting methodologies within the company were responsible for the weekly fluctuations in Duke’s number of customers disconnected as of March 31. “[W]e [Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress] are interpreting the question — ‘As of March 31st how  many residential/ nonresidential customers remained disconnected due to nonpayment?’ — as a weekly number that shows progress, if any, and not just a static snapshot of the situation as of March 31st. I have confirmed that Piedmont Natural Gas is only reporting the snapshot as of March 31st.” According to this methodology, Duke and Piedmont’s figures declined from a high of 660 residential disconnections to 395 during the April reporting periods – leaving at least 265 customers without electric or gas service.

Previous comments by a Duke spokesperson to the Energy and Policy Institute raised questions as to whether the company is treating all customers seeking to be reconnected equally in practice. Dominion’s website specifies that it will reconnect customers “whose services were recently shut off” (emphasis added).

Regardless of when a customer lost services, a lack of access to electricity, gas, or water during the COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to individual and public health, inhibiting North Carolinians’ ability to shelter-in-place and practice social distancing.

“A lot of people once they are disconnected find other options and leave the location,” Layne said.

State action averts shutoffs, late fees

The data also show the scale of further disconnections and fees averted during the pandemic by the Commission and executive orders. According to the filings, nearly 258,103 residential electric, gas, water, or wastewater shutoffs would have occurred absent the moratorium between April 1-25.

Residential electric, gas, water, and wastewater customers would have been billed almost $6.9 million in late fees and other charges between April 1-25. Duke, for instance, reports it would have charged residential customers over $1.3 million in late fees and associated charges during that period.

Thirty-two environmental and community organizations requested an extension and expansion of Executive Order 124 in a May 19 letter to Governor Cooper. Their proposed modifications include a longer grace period for the repayment of utility bill arrearages and the immediate reconnection of any customer still shut off whose service was suspended before the order.

Updated on May 20, 2020 at 8:20pm ET to include the public letter to Governor Cooper requesting an extension of Executive Order 124.

“Electricity meter” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Posted by Kelly Roache

Kelly Roache was a research and communications specialist at the Energy and Policy Institute.