Editorial: Pause electricity shutoffs for cash-strapped consumers
Florida energy regulators should heed this request: Declare a halt to utility shutoffs for at least 90 days to help people who are struggling with economic hardships wrought by COVID-19.
The League of United Latin American Citizens of Florida and two utility customers filed a petition last week at the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) for an emergency rulemaking process that would order utilities to hold off on collecting while the crisis remains severe.
The request is unusual. But so are the circumstances.
Nearly 600,000 energy customers in Florida were behind in their payments in July, when the PSC held a workshop on the problem. By now, that number tops 1 million, according to the petition, which was filed in Tallahassee by the Earthjustice legal organization.
The petition states the case in plain language:
“Electricity is a necessity in Florida, not a luxury, given the extreme weather conditions we face in this state. This is why cutting off electricity has long been recognized as a constructive eviction under Florida law.”
Earthjustice argues that becoming homeless is a likely consequence of having no power for heat, air-conditioning, lights and appliances. In other words, for people in desperate financial straits, an energy shutoff is as catastrophic as an eviction.
The PSC has 30 days to decide whether to grant the petition to halt shutoffs.
According to the Florida Phoenix news site, 22 states and the District of Columbia had moratoriums on utility cutoffs as of Sept. 8. Florida has never been under such a moratorium; instead, its five investor-owned utilities voluntarily stopped cutting off power for non-payment and are now free to resume at their discretion.
To their credit, the big utilities largely have acted honorably under the difficult circumstances. Florida Power and Light has let many thousands of bills pile up without turning off customers’ power. The arrears totaled $93.8 million. Which sounds like a lot, but is less than 3% of the $3.38 billion in net income reported last year by FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy.
Despite taking the financial hit, the company suspended all disconnects as of March 16. It also offered special payment plans for customers experiencing financial hardships, offered payment plans to spread past-due amounts into future monthly bills and waived late fees for strapped customers.
FPL notes that $3 million is still available through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The utility says it is trying to reach customers to tell them about it and even donated 150 laptops to the agencies that distribute the money to speed up applications, but too few people are calling in to ask for the help.
That kind of paternalism, however well it has worked these last seven months, is not good enough. It is the role of the regulators to look out for the public interest. The PSC should ensure that no Floridians lose their electricity because the crashed economy has left them powerless to pay the light bill.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal.