Utility regulators reject emergency petition to block power cutoffs

The FL Public Service Commission's draft rule is under fire from groups who want power companies to set higher goals for energy efficiency . Credit: FL PSC

The Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates Florida’s largest utility companies, voted Tuesday to deny an emergency petition that would prevent cutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.

At a minimum, hundreds of thousands of Floridians are behind on their utility payments and subject to disconnections, according to August data provided to the commission by Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power, Tampa Electric, and Duke Energy Florida, all investor-owned utility companies.

The companies had voluntarily suspended disconnections since March but resumed them in October.

They did not report Tuesday the meeting how many customers they have disconnected so far.

Attorney Bradley Marshall of Earthjustice said he was disappointed that PSC commissioners declined to prevent disconnections for customers who can demonstrate hardships caused by COVID-19.

Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, petitioned for the emergency rule that didn’t get approval.

“In this time, no one unable to pay their bill should face being disconnected,” Marshall told the Phoenix. “But what we did hear was pledges from the utilities to avoid disconnections … to use disconnections as a last resort. We have to hold them to that.”

Earthjustice represented the League of United Latin American Citizens of Florida and a Dade County couple in seeking emergency intervention by the PSC.

The five-member commission voted unanimously not to adopt an emergency rule, but questioned representatives of the utility companies about their policies for assisting customers in distress, especially the elderly, medically needy people, students being schooled online at home and employees working online at home.

The companies each reported they are offering flexible payment arrangements and waiving most fees, such as late fees, reconnection fees and interest on overdue payments. They did not pledge to halt disconnections for customers who claim hardship because of COVID-19.

Commissioner Donald Polmann said the commission vote should not be interpreted as lack of concern for vulnerable Floridians struggling during the pandemic economy.

“We are not saying disconnections are an appropriate thing to do,” Polmann said.