Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Texas public power utilities support customers during COVID-19

Like utilities around the country, Texas public power utilities are taking steps to care for their workforce and customers amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The top priorities for the 72 public power utilities in Texas is keeping their workforce healthy and being as supportive as possible to their 5.1 million customers, said Russ Keene, Texas Public Power Association executive director.

The Texas Public Power Association has been sharing information with its members to help them get through the COVID-19 crisis, according to Keene.

The association’s operating and engineering committee has met telephonically to discuss best practices for protecting field and control center employees and its cybersecurity subcommittee has been providing information on how to protect information technology systems while employees work from home, he said.

Only one Texas municipally-owned utility to date has had to implement a self-quarantine in response to COVID-19. After that successful self-quarantine, the ten electric department employees all returned to work 14 days later, Keene said. That town’s routine system maintenance was easily handled by two neighboring public power companies during the quarantine.

At the same time, public power utilities are providing temporary, voluntary financial relief to their customers while also being mindful of their own finances, according to Keene.

Bryan Texas Utilities, for example, is providing rate relief to help its roughly 60,000 customers. After an unusually mild winter and low natural gas prices, the public power utility was able to cut in half the power supply adjustment on customer bills for April and May. The move is expected to lower typical bills by about 15 percent.

Like other utilities, BTU won’t disconnect customers that don’t pay their bills and is waiving penalties. 

“BTU will continue to work with customers throughout this hardship, and would like to assure the community that we have a detailed plan to continue providing safe and reliable energy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” the utility said early this month.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brownsville Public Utilities Board (BPUB) voted to extend suspension of service disconnections and late fees and also expanded BPUB’s Project SHARE program to allow for more assistance to customers hardest hit by the pandemic at a board meeting held April 13.

 BPUB board members voted to expand the scope of the BPUB Project SHARE program using surplus improvement funds. In addition, board members voted to add an amendment to the Project SHARE program to include an emergency rider, giving BPUB the flexibility to issue amended program instructions for a limited time. This includes the ability to waive the current one-time-per-year limit for accounts being able to use SHARE funds

These measures will allow BPUB to assist customers hardest impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. BPUB staff will coordinate with local agencies to establish clear guidelines for the expanded program, which is intended for residential customers who cannot pay their utility bills due to unemployment or low income from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. A third-party fund administrator will determine customer eligibility.

The measure that was passed set aside $2 million to fund the start of this expanded Project SHARE program. Those funds are estimated to be enough for a one-month period.

In addition, BPUB ratified a prior suspension of late payment penalties/fees and service disconnects that was enacted to immediately start assisting customers. 

Another public power utility, Austin Energy, allows customers to go on deferred payment plans so they can receive uninterrupted utility service while working with utility representatives to develop long-term payment plans. Also, customers with limited incomes or are medically vulnerable can receive financial help.

The Austin City Council on April 9 approved emergency actions providing relief to Austin Energy and Austin Water customers.

Two weeks ago, the city council asked the utilities to explore ways to reduce the impact of utility bills as the Austin, Texas, community stays home to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The resulting changes will provide approximately $46 million in utility bill relief for City of Austin Utilities customers through Sept. 30, 2020.

The utilities are providing the assistance through two methods -- rate reductions and customer assistance programs.

And, in a recent Facebook Live event, Paula Gold-Williams, President and CEO of Texas public power utility CPS Energy, and other CPS Energy officials detailed how the utility is helping customers respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Texas utility managers are keenly aware that April and May can bring devastating weather that can lead to power outages requiring a strong response from utility employees, Keene said.

A disaster response could be complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If a true natural disaster hits during the next month or two, that could prove difficult for any utility in our state,” Keene said.