On March 26, the Texas Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, took a rare step, temporarily suspending cutoffs for all the electric companies it regulates. The measure was a response to economic displacement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The PUC doesn’t regulate all utilities, but many of them do fall under the agency’s jurisdiction.
“The idea was to provide protection from disconnection for nonpayment for Texas households that were at greatest risk as a result of the pandemic,” said Andrew Barlow, spokesperson for the utilities commission.
Even if you couldn’t pay your bill, your lights would stay on. Similar rules were put in place for the water companies the commission regulates.
The order was good for six months. The commission claims it protected over 600,000 households from losing electricity – particularly important during the summer months.
But now, those protections are gone. The program was always designed to be temporary, Barlow said. The utility commission decided to wind it down after seeing progress in the state’s unemployment rate.
“As the job numbers have continued to recover, that was an indicator that the program had existed for an appropriate period of time from an economic perspective,” said Barlow.
Barlow said that while there are no plans to reinstate the relief program, it could happen if more lockdowns are necessary. At the moment though, many water and electric companies are back to business as usual, which means potential cutoffs for non-payment.
“We left notices on people’s doors saying ‘Guys this is coming, this is what’s going to happen.’ We set up payment arrangements for people. It was kind of one of those things where at some point everybody has to get back to normal operating procedure,” said Azura Kerr.
Kerr is the utility collections billing manager for the city of Wichita Falls, which resumed cutting off water service for non-payment in July.
Kerr said that so far, there haven’t been as many disconnections as she expected. Many customers took advantage of payment plans, or reached out to one of the local non-profits that helps people with their bills.
“The agencies in town have been a huge help,” she said. “Not just water bills, they assist with all utilities including rent and things along those lines. The fact that agencies are there really has been a saving grace for a lot of people.”
Dana Harmon is executive director of the Texas Energy and Poverty Research Institute. She told Texas Standard that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased energy insecurity – the inability to meet basic needs for energy needed for heating, cooling and household energy.
“Household access to energy is essential to maintain health and well-being,” Harmon said. “And even before the pandemic, one in three U.S. households was reporting difficulty paying their energy bills.”
Harmon said energy insecurity is the result of three factors; economic need, energy-inefficient appliances and housing and lack of coping strategies needed to make tradeoffs among economic demands.
“What the pandemic is showing us is that households with high energy burdens are more likely to get caught in cycles of poverty,” she said.
Harmon said people of color and those living in poverty had been disproportionately affected by high energy costs, and that the pandemic made those burdens more apparent.
Though state protection against utility service cutoffs is now ended, Harmon said an ongoing federal program called Low Income Home energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP can offer help to individuals who apply for it through their utility, or through nonprofit assistance agencies. Harmon suggests individuals seeking assistance call 211, or visit 211texas.org.