ORIGINAL REPORTING: Paying The COVID Power Bill
Utility customers owe up to $40B in COVID-19 debt, but who will pay it? Shutoff moratoria have provided a reprieve for some on 2020 power bills, but still-mounting debt needs forgiveness or securitization, analysts say.
Herman K. Trabish, Dec. 3, 2020 (Utility Dive)
Editor’s note: The bill has mounted since this piece was written.
Shutoff moratoria across the country, allowing COVID-impacted residential and small business customers to defer utility payments without the threat of losing service, have been invaluable to millions, authorities on energy bill assistance say. But when the vaccines are dispensed and the pandemic fades, any economic recovery will be impacted by potentially huge debts to utilities, debts that have yet to be addressed anywhere, experts said. State regulators will decide whether the indebted customers, all utility customers, investors, taxpayers — or some combination of those groups — should pay this bill.
Residential and small business customers could owe "$35 billion to $40 billion dollars to their utilities by March 2021," according to National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA) Executive Director Mark Wolfe. "Our new arrearage data shows that by then, individual unpaid bills may be as high as $1,500 to $2,000, which is as much as some customers pay for electricity in a year."
Utilities have done remarkable things to keep customers' lights on and "just get through the pandemic," spokespeople for San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Duke Energy and other utilities said. But policymakers and regulators must now plan to get working-class families the debt forgiveness that businesses and institutions got from the federal government's paycheck protection programs, Wolfe said.
"The reality is that someone is going to pay," said University of Florida Public Utility Research Center Director of Energy Studies Theodore J. Kury. Policymakers' and regulators' choices include requiring payment from indebted customers, shifting the debt to utilities and their ratepayers, imposing it on taxpayers, or some combination. Although there may eventually be some good from the decision — like a better understanding of the effectiveness of moratoria or an improved relationship between utilities and their customers — they now must choose "how and when people pay," he added.
Starting in March, many states and utilities suspended power shut-offs for nonpayment. State-mandated or voluntary utility shut-off moratoria are now in place for 51% of the U.S. population (167 million people) across the country through Jan. 31, 2021, according to NEADA data from November.
As a result, utilities are seeing diminished revenues as they face unexpected expenses. The pandemic "required us to dramatically adjust how we operate," Duke spokesperson Neil Nissan said. Like many utilities, Duke suspended disconnections for unpaid bills and waived late and other fees. The utility also helped customers enroll in local payment programs, the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) or state and local assistance programs, including Duke Energy Foundation-funded local assistance agencies. Duke expects COVID-reduced load, along with diminished revenues from waived payments and fees to lead to $0.25 to $0.35 in reduced earnings per share for 2020, which "equates" to estimated losses of $180 million to $260 million, Nissan said… click here for more