Public power utilities across the country are helping customers facing financial hardships due to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic through the extension of disconnection moratoriums and the development of plans aimed at giving customers a variety of options to pay their bills.
Specifically, public power utilities are moving to:
- Extend and create or personalize flexible payment arrangements – especially if resuming disconnections
- Establish financial support programs (including with federal CARES Act funding) through grants or microloans
- Modify or streamline enrollment for customers in assistance programs – including automatic enrollment options
- Offer referrals to community action agencies for additional assistance (including LIHEAP funding)
- Assist hard-hit care organizations (e.g., childcare providers) or non-profits working to assist people through the pandemic
- Offer neighborhood revitalization assistance programs
Salt River Project
Arizona public power utility Salt River Project (SRP) implemented a moratorium on power disconnections starting in March. In July, SRP announced it was extending its suspension of disconnects until October. Throughout the summer, SRP accelerated its outreach programs to find financial support for customers and develop customized payment arrangements.
In late September, SRP said that as part of its customer support efforts, it would extend its disconnect moratorium for customers on its limited income program, the Economy Price Plan (EPP), until early January.
Additionally, beginning in October, SRP is automatically placing its non-EPP customers with $80 or more of debt on eight-month payment plans if they have not already called SRP to set up personalized payment arrangements. Non-EPP customers on SRP’s prepay program, the M-Power Price plan, will have any accumulated debt placed in a paydown account, and a percentage of every future energy purchase will be applied to this account so they can pay off the debt over time.
SRP said that it would put standard payment policies, including disconnects for non-payment, back in place on Oct. 1 for non-EPP customers, and SRP customer service representatives will continue to work with all customers to set up payment plans, share referrals to community action agencies with available COVID-19 relief funds, help customers switch price plans and receive payment extensions and discounts.
Any of these support activities can help reduce debt and help customers with past-due balances avoid potential disconnection this fall, SRP noted.
In addition, SRP will not charge EPP customers any late payment fees through early January. SRP customer service “will also continue to work with EPP customers to develop repayment plans and identify available bill assistance through community partners so these customers do not face unsustainable debt at the start of 2021,” it noted in a news release.
In late October, SRP reported that the utility and an anti-poverty group, Wildfire, have been working with community members who have accrued unsustainable debt during the pandemic by connecting them with community action agencies offering utility assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and additional COVID-19 relief funds.
SRP noted that the goal is to help these residents receive assistance now, including on rent and essential needs, before the holidays, and before funds run low and more financial-support requests come streaming in at the end of the year.
Since the beginning of November 2020, as of November 27, over 3,000 SRP customers have received almost 4,000 assistance payments from SRP and its community partners totaling over $2.7 million dollars during the month. In 2020 to date, over $13 million dollars of assistance payments have been made to SRP customers. This represents a 65% increase over 2019 with time remaining in the year.
Eugene Water & Electric Board
Oregon public power utility Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) on Oct. 29 reported that some EWEB residential customers would soon see a $250 bill credit on their EWEB accounts, while nonprofit agencies and childcare providers can apply for a new utility grant program.
EWEB and the City of Eugene are teaming up to distribute $250,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds that have been allocated to the city to help Eugene utility customers impacted by the pandemic.
To qualify for the CARES bill credit, EWEB customers need to live in Eugene and be pre-approved for Energy Assistance Stability CORONAVIRUS Relief Program (EASCR), a federal program administered by Lane County that provides financial assistance to income-qualifying households for home heating and energy bills. Once they are qualified for EASCR, the $250 CARES credit will be automatically applied to the EWEB bill; there’s no additional application process. For EWEB customers that already received EASCR, the $250 credit will be applied retroactively.
A second program offered by the EWEB and City partnership focuses on licensed childcare providers and nonprofit agencies providing direct services to clients impacted by COVID-19. Those organizations can apply for a utility grant equal to the lesser of $4,000 or their average monthly EWEB bill.
Total funding for the joint EWEB-city program is $150,000 for residential assistance and $100,000 for nonprofit and childcare providers and will be made available until funds have been fully allocated.
Low-income Los Angeles City residents who have been financially impacted through the loss of their job or who have otherwise experienced income loss in their household due to the COVID-19 pandemic are encouraged to apply for a one-time $500 grant to help pay their utility bills, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) noted on Oct. 27. The program is being championed by Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez.
In a related action, the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners approved allocating resources to support the grant program which will provide assistance to up to 100,000 low-income Angelenos impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The LADWP noted that the City of Los Angeles–LADWP CARES Utility Grant Program was made possible through federal CARES Act funding received by the city to assist struggling low-income city residents with utility costs.
Sacramento Municipal Utility District
California public power utility Sacramento Municipal Utility District on Nov. 16 announced its annual Shine community award recipients totaling $199,894. SMUD’s Shine program supports projects that improve and revitalize neighborhoods in the Sacramento region. Shine awards are funded for projects that address neighborhood revitalization, STEM education, environment and energy efficiency and workforce development.
Round one of the Shine awards is focused on getting immediate help to communities that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July, SMUD announced that in response to the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on local small businesses and nonprofits, it created a COVID-19 Relief: Nonprofit Microloan Program “for those who serve Sacramento’s most vulnerable communities and who may not have qualified for the federal, state and local loan offerings.”
Snohomish County PUD
In Washington State, Snohomish County PUD in October said that it was reaching out to customers who have fallen behind on their bills to ensure their past-due balances are addressed prior to the utility resuming disconnections for nonpayment.
PUD customers began receiving letters in October encouraging them to make payment arrangements to keep their account balance manageable, as well as giving them options for financial assistance.
Snohomish encouraged customers with a past-due balance to make partial payments when unable to pay the full amount or call the PUD about options available to assist them with their bill. The PUD has flexible short-term payment arrangements, long-term monthly payment plans and other assistance plans that can help customers, it noted.
The PUD also has a robust income-qualified assistance program that provides relief to customers in need, it said. Recent changes to the program have expanded eligibility and increased discount amounts for most customers in the program.
Washington State’s Benton PUD commissioners have approved an extension to temporarily suspend the following customer billing practices through December 31 for residential and general service rate classes: assessment of the 1% late fee on past due balances, disconnects for non-payment and urgent Notices regarding past due balances.
Benton PUD noted that the temporary extension was consistent with a proclamation from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. The proclamation banned energy, water, and telecommunication companies from disconnecting customers due to nonpayment, refusing to reconnect residential customers who were disconnected for nonpayment, and charging late fees or reconnection fees.
Benton PUD has set up a webpage that includes resources for COVID-19 customer assistance.
Franklin PUD, another Washington State-based PUD, provides details on its website on ways that the PUD can help its customers facing financial hardships as a result of COVID-19, as well as a list of organizations that can also provide assistance.
Washington State’s Chelan PUD notes on its website that in order to protect the health and well-being of its communities and families, customers with past-due accounts (electric, water and wastewater) will not be facing disconnection or late fees through December 31, 2020.
“This pause in shut-offs and late fees does not relieve customers from the obligation to pay for utility services though. We ask that you contact us if you may have problems paying your bills so that we can work together to develop repayment solutions,” Chelan noted.
Additional details on Chelan’s response to the pandemic are available here.
In Texas, San Antonio-based public power utility CPS Energy said that it stands ready to help any customer in need. “Our People First philosophy led us to suspend disconnects while our community bands together during this challenging time,” it notes on its website.
CPS Energy said that customers experiencing financial hardship and needing payment assistance should call CPS Energy to set up a payment plan. Late fees are waived for customers who make timely payments as part of a payment plan established during the period of suspended disconnects that is currently in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it said.
“Our team of energy experts can explain our helpful payment plan options and assist you with a strategy to catch up on missed payments and bring your account current if you fall behind. We can also help you determine if you qualify for assistance programs that are available to supplement utility bill payments for qualified participants.”
Austin Energy/City of Austin Utilities
In recognition of the impact of COVID-19 on the Austin community, the Austin, Texas, City Council approved emergency utility bill relief efforts in April 2020.
This included temporary reductions in electric and water rates through October 31, 2020, more flexible payment arrangements, and increased customer assistance funds available so long as funds remain. These measures will collectively provide approximately $46 million in utility bill relief.
City of Austin Utilities is offering extended payment arrangement agreements, as well as increasing the discount for the Customer Assistance Programs (CAP), which provide help to utility customers who face temporary and long-term financial difficulties, as well as those with serious medical problems.
City of Austin Utilities is also offering a new, more flexible payment option that allows customers to pay outstanding balances over a longer time. Customers who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 can spread their payments over 36 months, instead of the standard 24-month payment arrangement.
Austin Energy and Austin Water will each contribute an additional $5 million, a combined $10 million, to the Plus 1 financial support program.
Customers who experience financial hardship due to the effects of COVID-19 are now eligible for the Plus 1 Program. The utilities are also making programmatic changes, focusing on responsiveness and flexibility for quickly verifying eligibility and enrolling customers with a financial hardship.
Lincoln Electric System
Nebraska-based Lincoln Electric System noted in June that it continued to monitor pandemic developments in the Lincoln area, “providing solutions to customers struggling to pay their electric bill due to the disruption COVID-19 has caused. These solutions have included temporarily suspending disconnections due to nonpayment, modifying qualifications for LES’ Energy Assistance Program and developing individualized repayment plans to fit customer needs.”
During a June 19 LES Administrative Board meeting, it was determined that the assessment of late payment charges would resume beginning July 1, 2020.
“LES will continue to work with customers’ specific circumstances and develop flexible repayment plans to suit those circumstances while helping them to get current with their bill,” it noted.
“Customers who have been working with LES to develop a plan regarding their current financial situation are advised to stay the course and contact LES again if circumstances change. Anyone struggling to pay their electric bill at this time who has not contacted LES is urged to do so immediately. There are customer service representatives ready to help develop a repayment plan or connect customers in need with resources for financial assistance.
Nebraska Public Power District
During Nebraska Public Power District’s Board of Directors July meeting, it was determined that the assessment of late payment charges would resume beginning Aug. 1, 2020. Disconnections for nonpayment were scheduled to begin at the same time.
“NPPD will continue to work with each customer on their individual situation, including developing a repayment plan to suit them while helping to get current with their bill,” it noted at the time.
NPPD offers financial assistance to customers in a number of ways including its Pennies for Power energy assistance program established to help disadvantaged families pay energy-related expenses.
Customers can also reach out to NPPD to arrange a customized payment plan and get connected with additional resources.
Starting in September, all residential customers in the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) service territory can apply for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Utility Assistance funds.
An article in OPPD’s The Wire newsletter notes that this summer, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners voted to allocate $4 million in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for utility assistance. But those funds were only available to residents of Douglas County.
In September, additional funds were made available to residents in all of OPPD 13-county service territory. The assistance was made possible through an agreement with the state of Nebraska and Dollar Energy Fund, the article noted.
Dollar Energy Fund manages OPPD’s energy assistance program (EAP) as well as a network of community organizations across the utility’s service territory. These organizations can access the CARES utility assistance in addition to OPPD’s EAP funds to help customers experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic, the story said.
Cleveland Public Power
In Ohio, Cleveland Public Power notes on its website that as part of the CARES Act financial package that Ohio Governor Mike Dewine’s administration introduced in October, $50 million from the Corona Relief Fund was allocated to 47 community action agencies.
The available funds will assist Ohioans who have fallen behind on their water, electric, and sewer bill payments.
Cuyahoga County CARES funding is being made available through CHN Housing Partners to Cleveland Water, Cleveland Public Power, and Water Pollution Control qualifying customers who acquired past due balances after March 1, 2020, and who are at or below 120 percent of median household income and have been affected by COVID-19, including through income loss.
The City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County residents are encouraged to contact CHN Housing Partners and apply while funds are available. The deadline to apply is December 31.
City of Columbus, Ohio
The City of Columbus, Ohio, is making additional funding from the 2020 federal CARES Act available for utility assistance grants to Columbus residents. These funds will be distributed to help families who have been unable to pay for utilities because of issues related to the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of Public Utilities' CARES Act Assistance Program offers one-time payment aid of up to $750 toward an eligible Columbus water/sewer/stormwater bill, and/or up to $500 toward an eligible power bill. Residents who qualify can receive financial help for unpaid or overdue utility charges that are at a point of service disruption.
Joel Ivy, general manager of Florida public power utility Lakeland Electric, notes in a message on the utility’s website that, “We know many of our customers are experiencing financial hardships because of the disruptions caused by the pandemic. That is why we have introduced the Coronavirus Payment Plan to give our customers who need it, time to get back on their feet.”
As a public power utility, “we are always focused on how we can support our community, particularly during difficult times. While life as we know it has temporarily changed, we're here to help you get through this. We took the unprecedented step of temporarily reducing the fuel rate by 26% on your bills through June. We are giving customers who call us to set-up a plan extra time to make your bill current. We are here to serve you, our valued customers, and thank you for the privilege of allowing us to do it,” Ivy said in his message.
Orlando Utilities Commission
In August, Florida public power utility Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) noted that it was offering immediate electric and water bill relief to residential customers who are eligible for Project CARE, the utility’s bill-payment assistance fund supported by OUC, its employees and customers.
Earlier this year, OUC’s Board of Commissioners approved a $12.1 million COVID-19-related relief package, which included a $2.6 million grant to Project CARE.
Since April, OUC has helped nearly 24,000 customers through payment options and financial assistance – yet nearly $1.5 million still remains available for those in need, the utility noted in August.
In addition to Project CARE, OUC offers several payment options, including OUC Power Pass, which is a pay-as-you-go option for customers. The utility said it would waive the first month’s customer charge for new Power Pass enrollees and apply existing deposits to outstanding balances. Payment arrangements have been extended up to 12 months in some cases.
The $12.1 million relief package approved in April also included $7.5 million to lower electric fuel rates for May bills; $1.5 million for utility bill-payment assistance to qualified small businesses; and $500,000 toward the first month’s customer charge for new OUC Power Pass customers.