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Thousands of Hoosiers remain at-risk of disconnection as deadline for extended pay plans nears

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Posted at 5:46 PM, Oct 01, 2020

INDIANAPOLIS — Thousands of Hoosier households continue to be at-risk of disconnection from utilities as a result of increased usage as people have spent more time at home as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Moratoriums preventing utility companies from disconnecting customers for nonpayment from both Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's office and the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission have expired.

The IURC ordered utility companies to offer extended payment plans to consumers, but that order only runs through Oct. 12.

Decisions by both Gov. Holcomb and the IURC to allow the moratoriums to expire came even as the impacts of the novel coronavirus continue to be felt by businesses and residents alike statewide.

Businesses and restaurants have closed permanently. Many that remain open have had to adjust to a myriad of challenges to survive, including fewer consumers, occupancy restrictions, the statewide mask mandate and a host of others.

Many Hoosiers have had to adjust to working from home as well as the added challenge of students who have spent time, not in the classroom, but learning from home.

The increased time at home — either for work, school or because of previously issued stay-at-home orders — has resulted in increased utility bills for many who have had difficulty absorbing the increased cost.

"It's a very complicated situation as you've just eluded to," Anthony Swinger, a spokesman for the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, said. "It's certainly a very fluid situation. The OUCC continues to monitor it closely."

A recent study by move.org ranked all 50 states by the average monthly utility costs. Indiana ranked 31st out of the 50 states with an average monthly cost of $390.28. Hawaii, Florida and South Carolina, respectively, were the most expensive. New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, respectively, were the least expensive.

Despite having overall utility costs that rank in the bottom half for consumers nationwide, many Hoosiers are still having trouble keeping up with their bills because of the uncertainty brought on by the global pandemic. Indiana's unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in August — down from a high of 16.9 percent in April, according to numbers from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

Part of the complexity of getting a clear picture of how many people are at-risk of shutoffs is that not all utility companies have filed specific numbers of likely or expected disconnections with the IURC, Swinger said. In addition, not all utilities are under the jurisdiction of the IURC, which includes most of the municipal utility companies and all of the rural electric membership cooperatives, Swinger said.

"What I can tell you from the data that we have seen, there are two really significant trends. First is if you look at the five major electric utilities in Indiana and you look at the number of customers who are at least 60 days behind on their bills, the number of customers in that category is much higher than it was a year ago," Swinger said. "The other thing is with only one exception among those five major utilities, fewer than 10 percent of the customers who are at least 60 days behind on their bills are enrolled in payment plans so there is certainly a lot of room if you will for customers to get on payment arrangements."

Courtney Arango, a spokeswoman for Indianapolis Power and Light, said the utility doesn't have a specific percentage to illustrate how different the summer of 2020 has been in terms of increased usage from folks staying home, but there has been an increase in usage beyond what the utility would normally expect during the summer.

"IPL residential load we have seen a slight uptick in energy usage. It's also summertime so, of course, people are using their air conditioners more frequently," Arango said. "With regard to commercial load, which is the small businesses and other establishments that were affected by the stay-at-home order of course those have reduced a bit."

Arango said IPL is working to reach thousands of customers who are behind on their bills and get them set up with a payment plan that can be spread out over several months. IPL is offering plans from 3, 6, 9 or 12 months. The company has been taking "aggressive measures" to reach out to consumers through mailers, emails, automated calls, or calls from live agents in order to prevent customers from entering into the disconnection process.

IPL isn't alone in seeing an uptick in both usage and the number of customers who have fallen at least 60 days behind on their bills.

Through the end of July, Duke Energy reported 19,000 residential customers in Indiana who met that threshold, along with 1,400 non-residential customers, according to Angeline Protogere, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy.

Most customers are eligible to make payment plan arrangements to avoid disconnection and the reconnection and other fees that happen if service is turned off for nonpayment, Protogere said.

"The last thing we want to do is disconnect a customer's electric service," Protogere said. "That's always a last resort even in normal times so we have mounted a full-court press to notify customers of their options and that we are here to help."

Protogere said even before moratoriums were put in place, Duke turned off its disconnection system in March and waived many of its fees.

"This crisis has been very unique and unprecedented for us all," Protogere said. "This has been a very challenging crisis for everyone and it's why we took the steps we did in March to voluntarily suspend disconnections and waive a lot of the fees such as late payment fees so that customers could focus on their lives."

Citizens Energy Group has experienced a somewhat different scenario as the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded. While electric companies like IPL and Duke have seen and tracked noticeable increases in usage directly tied to more people staying home and using more devices at home, Citizens hasn't had quite the same experience.

Dan Considine, a spokesman for Citizens Energy Group, said while there has been a slight increase in water usage, there hasn't been any increase relative to natural gas usage. The timing of the pandemic's effects being felt locally is the reason for that, he said.

Citizens is ready and prepared as central Indiana inches closer to the heating season, with the impacts from COVID-19 expected to linger for the foreseeable future, Considine said.

"As we all know we expect this pandemic is going to last an extended period of time," Considine said. "This isn't going to be over in a month or two. This clearly is going to extend well into the winter and hopefully not beyond that but well into the winter."

Despite the pandemic's effects not reaching central Indiana until the end of last winter and right at the start of spring, Considine said there are still tens of thousands of customers who are behind on their bills. Considine said the utility has 17,000 customers who are 60 days behind on their bills and 35,000 who are 30 days behind on their bills.

The company has established 6,000 payment arrangements, with most of those established after the governor's moratorium on disconnections ended, he said.

"We know there's probably a significant number of people who have never been in this situation before," Considine said. "There's been a pretty extraordinary economic downturn and so there's a lot of people new to this kind of system, they're not accustomed to asking for assistance."

Both IPL and Duke encourage their customers who are behind on their bills to reach out to the utility directly in order to help set up a payment plan as well as to see what other assistance may be available for them.

Both companies have earmarked funds to assist customers who are having issues.

After deciding not to extend its moratorium on disconnections, the IURC did issue an order requiring utility companies to offer extended payment arrangements for consumers through Oct. 12. With that deadline approaching, both Arango and Protogere said it's imperative for customers who have fallen behind to reach out to their utility company and make those arrangements sooner rather than later.

"Don't wait and don't be afraid to ask because we know that these are unprecedented times," Arango said.

In addition to grant programs directly through the utilities, both Arango and Protogere said there are other avenues for struggling consumers to reach out for help including township trustee offices and utilizing Indiana 211, which offers a range of COVID-19-related assistance programs beyond utility assistance — food, shelter, mental health and child care, among them. Community Action of Greater Indianapolis also has assistance options for people as does The Salvation Army.

In addition to various company and community resources for helping those behind on their bills, all the companies offer various tools and tips on their websites for consumers to save on their energy bills.

LEARN MORE | Indianapolis Power and Light | Duke Energy| Citizens Energy Group

TIPS TO SAVE ON ENERGY COSTS

  • Turn off unneeded lights, appliances and devices.
  • During the warm months, raise your thermostate a couple of degrees. During cold months, lower it a couple degrees.
  • Clean or replace cooling system filters regularly.
  • Keep windows and doors closed when the air conditioning is on.