March 20, 2015—Now that spring has arrived, about 20 states will have ended their moratoriums by March 31 and many others will be ending in April. These moratoriums keep utilities from cutting off energy to certain vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations include those with low-incomes, the elderly, those with disabilities, and households with young children.
Utilities in the state of Indiana have publicly announced the end of the state's moratorium this past week on March 15. According to news reports, utilities began disconnecting customers with overdue bills on March 15 in the case of NIPSCO and on March 16 for both Vectren Energy and Citizen's Energy Group. All three utilities directed their customers to apply for LIHEAP assistance, along with publicizing their own payment programs in place for those who had already received, and exhausted, their LIHEAP benefits. In addition, each utility gave their customers advice on how to reduce energy consumption.
In most states, the disconnection of service involves a multiple step process. Frequently, regulators require utilities to send shut-off notices by mail and send a representative in person to notify the household. Often, these customers can still make payment arrangements with their utilities to avoid having their service disconnected. A recent case in Ohio, however, has low-income advocates worried. The public utility commission recently approved American Electric Power (AEP) to execute remote shut-offs when it comes to over 130,000 customers who have "smart meters." The utility will not have to send a representative out for a personal visit with the customer. The Public Utilities Commission in Ohio stated this change did not violate the state's law regarding disconnection procedures. The ruling will take effect in August 2015. AEP has promised that it will not cut off energy for certain vulnerable populations, including those with cognitive disabilities and those who are dependent on medical equipment.
Instead of sending out a utility worker to notify each customer that faces a shut-off, AEP intends to send out several warnings and contact the customer by phone or by mail 10 days, and then two days, before disconnection. AEP states that each home visit currently costs $16 dollars and is paid for as part of all ratepayers' base rate. No mention was made of how the change in policy might impact ratepayers' base fees. However, as part of this new disconnect procedure, AEP can no longer charge overtime fees for the reconnection of power to a customer with a smart meter who has been disconnected remotely.