Following a testy public hearing Friday, Connecticut’s utility regulators directed Eversource Energy to act on its own without state approval to continue a moratorium on gas and electricity shut-offs to customers hurt financially by COVID-19.
The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority directed utilities to extend the deadline for enrollment in COVID-19 payment plans to Feb. 9.
PURA Chair Marissa Gillett criticized Eversource for saying it “can’t prudently take action that isn’t authorized by our regulators.”
“I’d just like to say to that ... reading that was a little bit like a gut punch,” she said. "It’s like you’re asking us to micromanage your business. And I am sure that is not what you intended, but that is honestly what it feels like.”
Utility customers are already protected from shut-offs by payment programs and a separate winter protection plan, Gillett said.
“If the moratorium is the right thing to do as Eversource claims then they will have no problem exercising their discretion to voluntarily extend the moratorium until such time as the emergency has passed,” she said. “The authority declines to do so."
Eversource asked PURA Sept. 30 to renew the moratorium, which expired Oct. 1.
“Continuing the moratorium is the right thing to do for customers who have faced financial hardship, uncertainty and an unprecedented series of other challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic persists and we are hoping that PURA will agree and authorize us to reinstitute the moratorium," the utility said.
Attorney General William Tong, who sought an extension of the moratorium, said “extending the moratorium is the best course of action.”
"Payment plans are no doubt helpful to many, but they do not protect against shut-off for Connecticut’s most vulnerable families,” he said.
Without permission, the utility said it might not be able to recover the cost of unpaid bills in a future financial filing with PURA.
“I’m not sure exactly what that is saying,” Gillett said. “But I think what it’s saying is your position is unless you receive authorization or pre-approval you cannot take an action because it won’t be deemed prudent and thus not be recoverable from ratepayers.”
She questioned what she called a “built-in expectation of pre-approval for cost recovery of literally everything.”
Penni McLean-Conner, chief customer officer of Eversource, said the utility is not seeking approval for cost recovery. The reason for its request to consider an extended moratorium is the “unusual magnitude of scale that we’re dealing with.”
Of Eversource’s 2.2 million electric customers and 200,000 gas customers, 7% qualify for assistance programs, with more expected because of the coronavirus, she said.
“Customers may not even be able to succeed on those payment plans," Conner said.
Gillett said that if customers still can’t pay bills using programs that the utilities describe “as the most generous payment arrangement in this country then I’m going to return to the fact that we have a clear energy affordability problem in this state.”
Other utilities of similar size, “if not larger,” have voluntarily established moratoriums “from the beginning.”
Jessica Cain, vice president of customer operations, said Eversource has not disconnected any customer since the start of the pandemic. She said 125,000 customers — all but 8,000 business customers are non-hardship residential users — have a past due balance of more than $125, which makes them eligible to be disconnected.
Before the coronavirus 70% of customers who receive a disconnect notice pay the bill or make arrangements to pay. “In this time in COVID we’re not seeing that response,” she said.
Eversource said it will continue to promote residential hardship programs and payment plans before disconnecting service for nonpayment. The utility has enrolled more than 65,000 customers with payment arrangements and matching payment programs.
Protection from disconnect is provided while customers use these programs, Eversource said.
Stephen Singer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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