The state’s largest electric and gas utilities can’t start shutting off their poorest customers over unpaid bills until May 2023, according to a recent decision by state utility regulators. The ruling prevents the companies from using the threat of turning off gas or electric service to push those customers to pay millions of dollars in overdue bills that have accumulated since the start of the COVID pandemic.
PURA rejected an effort by Eversource and Avangrid to begin shutting off “hardship” customers, who earn less than 60 percent of the state median income or receive government assistance, as soon as September.
The companies say that threats of shutoffs are an effective way to push customers with overdue bills to pay their balance or to enter into a payment plan to pay off their balance – which protects them from being shut off as long as they make their payments.
But regulators said that timing was “illogical” considering hardship customers are protected from shut offs each year from November to May. The companies’ proposed timelines would leave them little time to actually notify those customers they could be disconnected and enroll them in payment plans before the winter moratorium, and they would have to re-start the process again in May anyway, PURA said.
“Such a schedule striked the Authority as a poor use of the companies’ resources and thus ratepayer dollars,” PURA said in its orders to Eversource, which owns Yankee Gas, and Avangrid, which owns United Illuminating, Connecticut Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas.
PURA also expressed concern for how the companies planned to communicate with hardship customers facing disconnection – warning that Avangrid’s proposal would only provide boilerplate information to residential customers without considering their financial or medical status, and that they did not clearly explain the options those customers have.
PURA echoed concerns from the Center for Children’s Advocacy, Connecticut Legal Services and Operation Fuel that Eversource’s proposed communications did not clearly explain options to enter a payment plan and avoid a service shut off, and that the materials were too complicated for some customers to understand.
The companies will be required to revise their communication plans before May, PURA said.
State regulators also criticized both companies for waiting until July to seek permission to start disconnecting hardship customers, given that the regulators told the companies in August 2021 that they would need to request permission at least 60 days before they planned to resume shut offs.
PURA said the companies waited 11 months to file motions that would give them little time to actually disconnect customers before the winter shut off moratorium – and the regulators were especially concerned that Eversource “ignored” these directions by asking for a waiver of the 60-day review period so it could start disconnections the same time as Avangrid despite filing its request nearly a month later.
“[PURA] may consider whether the Companies’ delay in filing the present motion is indicative of inefficient and imprudent management and, if so, what the ramifications might be for the Companies when they seek to recover their costs associated with the shut-off moratorium,” PURA said.