PSC staff recommendation: It’s okay to cut off power to delinquent customers during COVID

The FL Public Service Commission voted Tuesday not to prevent utility companies from disconnecting customers long overdue on their power bills. Credit: FL PSC

Florida’s investor-owned utilities should be free to cut off power to delinquent customers — which could mean more than 1 million people — despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a recommendation by the staff of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Three staff members who analyzed the situation concluded an emergency moratorium is “unnecessary” and said the utility companies it regulates have reported they will “actively work to avoid discontinuation of electric service.”

The staff recommendation was prepared for a PSC hearing scheduled for Tuesday on a petition demanding that disconnections be prohibited during the pandemic. The Florida Public Service Commission regulates utilities such as investor-owned electric companies and other entities.

Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, and its clients say in their petition for an emergency moratorium that loss of utilities often results in homelessness, making families more vulnerable to COVID-19 and worsening its spread.

“In the midst of this economic and public health calamity, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Company, and Florida Power & Light Co. have resumed cutting off Floridians’ electricity due to non-payment. Based on the latest data provided by the utilities, these companies may shut off the electricity to over 1 million people in the state,” the petition says, as filed on Sept. 22.

The utility companies stopped cutting power to delinquent customers seven months ago when the virus took hold and Florida commerce shut down, causing widespread unemployment.

They have resumed disconnections to various extents, while also offering flexible payment plans and pointing customers to sources of assistance.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia were prohibiting utility disconnections as of Oct. 1, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA). Twenty-eight, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, were not. NEADA estimates past-due totals nationwide reached $9.8 billion on July 30 and will grow to $24.3 billion by year’s end.

Democrats State Rep. Anna Eskamani, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez and a coalition of Florida community organizations including the League of Conservation Voters released a letter Friday calling on Florida Power & Light to suspend disconnections through next year and to share the corporation’s savings and profits with its distressed customers.

“We need a statewide moratorium until the end of next year and utility debt relief for our communities,” said Eskamani, who filed comments in support of the petition filed by Earthjustice.

“Florida has very timid leaders when it comes to dealing with utilities … and the governor has been hands-off, said Javier Rodriguez, who has been calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to convene the Florida Legislature in special session to address such matters.

The coalition highlighted an analysis published last month by eight analysts with the Energy and Policy Institute, a renewable-energy think tank, reporting chief executive officers of utility companies received compensation as high as $28 million in 2019.

The analysis argues that utility companies could tap their high executive salaries to offset consumer delinquencies during this crisis, rather than cut off power for non-payment and raise rates on paying customers.