Kansas regulators attempt to protect utility customers from cut-offs


Kansas regulators have utilities in their state under orders to offer a plan so utility customers who can’t afford to pay their bills because of the COVID-19 pandemic don’t experience an immediate cutoff. Still, environmentalists are warning cutoffs in the heat could leads to deaths.

Kansas falls alongside more than half of U.S. states that no longer have gas, electric or water shut-off bans, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association reported the Wichita Eagle.

The Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates utility rates, and Gov. Laura Kelly ordered the suspension of utility disconnects for nonpayment earlier this year because of the COVID-19 crisis and unemployment concerns. The orders both expired in May.

Since then, the KCC ordered the utilities under its jurisdiction to offer their customers a 12-month payment plan and waive late fees through 2020, according to Linda Berry, director of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection at KCC.

Evergy, the largest electric provider in Kansas, announced a voluntary pause on disconnects in March that expired in July, according to Gina Penzig, external communications manager.

“We had, as of May, about 180,000 customers who were past due, and we serve 1.6 million customers,” Penzig said. “At that point, we saw a higher number of customers who were past due then in a normal year.”

Currently, most utility companies have resumed disconnections, according to Berry.

Without a nationwide utility shut-off ban, advocates say there will be deaths directly resulting from lack of access to utilities, a problem exacerbated by COVID-19, but also climate change.

“With the heat waves going on and all of these climate change-induced situations, this is really our last final shot at getting a nationwide moratorium,” said Jean Su, energy director of the Climate Law Institute and a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “States are not protecting people. We really need the federal government to come in and have a blanket moratorium that can protect everybody during this period.”

Advocates at the state and federal levels are gaining momentum in asking for federal intervention with a nationwide utility shut-off ban, which they hope will appear as part of the next COVID-19 relief package.

“There are all kinds of vulnerable populations from people who rely on electricity to power medical devices…to people in hot places where air conditioning is really a public health concern,” said Tyler Fitch, a regulatory manager for Vote Solar, a utility advocate group. “Those are people that if their electricity shut off, even for a couple of days, it’s going to be a really critical crisis for them.”

Vote Solar found that an estimated 17% of Kansas households would be unable to pay their utility bills, likely as a direct result of COVID-19, using data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Even before the pandemic, the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that in 2018 one-third of Americans struggled to pay utility bills, many going without other necessities like food to try to keep up.

“There’s gonna be a huge amount of fatalities,” Su said. “If you don’t have water to wash your hands or even drink, you’re going to die. If you don’t have electricity to turn on that air conditioning in a heatwave, you’re going to die. If you don’t have heat, you are going to die in winter. That is what is at stake, and it’s on top of the COVID carnage that already exists.”

Kansas is a state with a Cold Weather Rule, meaning that residents cannot have their electric, gas or water disconnected when under 35 degrees. However, it does not have an accompanying “Hot Weather Rule,” which some advocates are concerned about as climate change causes rising temperatures.

“We have people every year who choose to put on their air conditioner and forgo food,” Su said. “These are the hard choices, and all of this is exacerbated by a lack of financial security. There are going to be tons more families who can’t afford air conditioning, and there are fatal consequences to that with these record heat waves.”

Evergy is one example and has a program where they have agreed that, for the safety of their Kansas customers, they will put a pause on the disconnect if the temperature is forecasted to be over 95 degrees or the heat index about 105 in the upcoming 24 hours, according to Penzig.

In the meantime, several Kansas organizations, including Kansas Appleseed and Climate and Energy Project, have been advocating on behalf of Kansans when it comes to utilities.

Penzig, the spokesperson for Evergy, said that any utility shut-off ban must contain a plan for managing the bills once the ban expires or risk causing consumers more problems.

“You have the potential of customers then getting to the point where they have nearly a year’s worth of utility payments,” Penzig said. “You’re again putting a burden on the customer’s budget who is already struggling. You’re tapping your social service agencies in the communities and then also the companies are having to make decisions on how much credit to offer customers and what kinds of programs.”

United Way of the Plains, a Wichita nonprofit, offers several resources for those who are struggling financially, including a 211 information line. The second-largest number of calls to United Way have been about utilities, primarily gas and electric, following questions about COVID-19 and testing, according to Delane Butler, vice president of marketing.

United Way also began a once-a-month Help Center three months ago, which gives financial assistance for mortgages, rent and utilities. While utilities have always been a top reason for people calling their 211 helpline, Butler said that calls for utility and rent help are actually down from last year.

“We’ve actually found the numbers have not been huge yet,” Butler said. “I think that’s primarily related to the fact that there had been moratoriums on utilities being cut off…(and) the national moratoriums on evictions. We’re expecting those numbers to go up.”

Some advocates would like to see the utility corporations “soak up” the money that customers who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 owe utility companies.

David Nickel, the consumer counsel for the Kansas Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, said that the possibility of utilities swallowing overdue bills hasn’t been entertained yet, as they’re still gathering information to see if it would even be necessary in Kansas.

“Companies, in particular restaurants and the like, are really suffering through this, so is it reasonable to expect a utility to go out unscathed? Perhaps not,” Nickel said. “Is it reasonable to put them in a position where the utilities bear the brunt of this and the shareholders have to buy all of this? That’s probably not reasonable, too.”

Utility rates could be higher as Kansans are working from home, but in a lot of ways, it’s too early to know how many Kansans will be in trouble as current data isn’t available, Nickel said.

“We really don’t even know the amount of delinquencies, and the amount of impact is going to be on utilities at this juncture,” Nickel said. “We’re so early on in this that we don’t know. It could be a whole bunch of money, and it could be relatively slight. It certainly is an issue that ought to be evaluated.”

 Source: Wichita Eagle