We need electricity and gas guaranteed statewide. Here's how and who needs to commit

Waking up warm and comfortable. Pouring milk for cereal. Logging your child into online schoolwork. Making stir fry over the stove. Listening to the news on the radio.

This is a snapshot of what many Michiganders likely experience each day as they stay at home protecting themselves and their community from COVID-19. It is not the case, however, for thousands of Michiganders and potentially thousands more.

While we tread through the uncertain, sometimes scary waters this pandemic brings us, many of us have minimum essentials: the electricity and gas that keep our homes warm, our food refrigerated and our learning and work essentials powered on. For others, financial hardships have or could lead to electricity and gas shut-offs. 

Many governors and public service commissions have placed moratoriums on utility shut-offs and have taken other steps -- such as waiving late fees and service restoration costs -- to ensure their residents are able to shelter in comfortable, healthy homes during and after the global pandemic.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order requiring all water utilities to restore service to customers cut off due to nonpayment or damaged water infrastructure. 

Next, statewide action needs to be taken to ensure all residents have similar access to electric and gas services during this public health crisis. Groups across the state have encouraged Gov. Whitmer and the Michigan Public Service Commission to ensure access to affordable utility services statewide.  

Michigan officials are currently relying on voluntary commitments to ensure access to utility services made by individual utilities. However, research by Michigan Environmental Council demonstrates that these voluntary commitments are a patchwork across the state and that the majority of Michigan utilities have not put any in place.

MEC created a report of all the electric and gas utility companies in Michigan and their public commitments to shut-off moratoriums, reconnections and financial protections during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Many have given unclear commitments, and many more -- especially municipal and co-op utilities -- have made no public commitments at all. 

[Read: Report: Electricity and gas protections during COVID-19 pandemic]

Below are the policies MEC and on-the-ground allies urge Gov. Whitmer and the Michigan Public Service Commission to take up and that regulated and unregulated utilities should enact now.

Actions to turn electric and gas services on and keep them on

  • Prohibit all electric and gas utility shut-offs due to nonpayment.   
  • Order utilities to reconnect customers who were previously disconnected due to nonpayment.
  • Waive all late payment charges and provide no-cost reinstitution of any services that have already been cut off due to nonpayment. 
  • Waive any credit card or other remote billing charges so customers can pay remotely online or over the phone unimpeded. 
  • Adjust state Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) application deadlines, enrollment qualification and eligibility certification processes to ensure people who recently lost their jobs or have reduced wages due to COVID-19 are eligible for electric and gas utility assistance. 
    • Institute a provision to allow LIHEAP eligibility for households that have sudden changes in economic or employment status.
    • Increase amounts of individual monthly assistance credits to more fully cover a resident’s total bill. 
  • Automatically enroll all food stamp recipients into utility assistance programs. 
  • Require utilities to include a bill insert in the next billing cycle noting all the financial assistance and flexible payment programs available and how the customer can access more information about such programs. The utility should also describe the specific eligibility requirements and timeframe for programs specific to COVID-19 relief. 
  • Require utilities to report every other week the number of customers without access to electric or gas services and the timeline to restore them. Also require utilities to report the number of customers that were denied enrollment in assistance programs since the beginning of March and the reasons for denials. 

Actions to make electric and gas services affordable

  • Require each utility to submit an “affordability plan” to the Michigan Public Service Commission within 180 days that describes the steps it will take to reduce the number of customers who cannot consistently pay their bills. Plans should include an examination of implementing a rate that caps energy burden based on income. 
  • Eliminate down payment requirements on deferred payment arrangements.
  • Require extended payment plans where utilities don’t currently offer them.  
  • Require utilities to write off debt for consumers who certify that they are eligible for LIHEAP but are unable to receive it under expanded eligibility requirements due to insufficient funds. 
  • Prohibit utilities from engaging in negative credit reporting.
  • Require the Michigan Public Service Commission to lead a stakeholder process to create continuity plans for energy efficiency programs, particularly energy efficiency and weatherization programs offered to low-income single-family and multi-family residential customers. 
  • Require utilities submit revised retirement analysis for coal plants.
  • Deny utilities any cost recovery on capital expenses for uneconomic coal plants.

Written by Beau Brockett Jr.

Photo by Beau Brockett Jr.