Utilities told to hold off on disconnections

Published 12:20 am Friday, July 31, 2020

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina regulators have told the state’s big for-profit electric, natural gas and water utilities to keep delaying disconnections through August as customers struggle financially from COVID-19.

The state Utilities Commission issued an order late Wednesday, the same day a provision expired in Gov. Roy Cooper’s separate executive order that prevented shutoffs for all residential customers behind on their bills. Both Cooper and the commission initially entered disconnection moratoriums in March.

Services covering about 1.4 million residential customer accounts had become eligible for disconnection as of June 30, according to commission data, with $258 million in unpaid bills for all types of customers. The state’s economy rallied in June, with the unemployment rate falling to under 8%. But that’s still double the pre-pandemic rate, and federal pandemic unemployment benefits of $600 per week are set to expire.

The end of Cooper’s directive meant at a minimum that local governments and cooperatives that provide utility services could resume disconnections, provided customers received a six-month period to pay overdue charges off first.

The commission’s order told the large for-profit utilities like Duke Energy and Dominion Energy they could resume disconnections for nonpayment of bills issued on or after Sept. 1. These utilities also must offer customers in arrears with 12-month minimum repayment plans.

Subsidiaries of Duke Energy asked the commission earlier this month to clarify the expiration date of the suspension of disconnections for the for-profit companies, which also include Dominion Energy. According to the commission order, Duke Energy had suggested aligning the expiration with the end of Cooper’s order “would reduce customer confusion and place all North Carolina utility customers on similar footing.” Duke already had planned on an additional 30-day grace period.

The commission wrote that the prohibition of service disconnections for the for-profit utilities could have continued indefinitely. But it noted the accumulated unpaid bills could make it “difficult or in some cases even impossible” for customers to repay and utilities to recoup uncollected revenues. About 60% of unpaid bills were for Duke Energy Carolinas, Duke Energy Progress and Dominion Energy