Legal protections from utility disconnection

Published December 1, 2021; Updated February 22, 2022

Facing a utility disconnection is a very stressful event. Since the beginning of the pandemic, CUB has fielded hundreds of calls from consumers worried about paying their energy bills. With heating fuel costs rising, we fear many people may struggle in the upcoming months to keep up with energy bills. While we write about these topics fairly regularly, we think it’s important to keep spreading the word about how to prevent a utility shutoff. We hope you will help us spread the word too.   

Utilities are generally allowed to disconnect consumers when they fall behind on their bills. There is no specific past due amount that triggers a shutoff; policies vary by utility. However, all utilities must notify their consumers if they are in danger of being shut off for past due bills. Consumers should not ignore these messages – you must take action to prevent a shutoff from happening. 

Minnesota has legal and regulatory protections for people at risk of having their utility service shut off. Some protections listed below apply to regulated utilities only, and others apply to all energy utilities in the state. As a reminder, the regulated utilities in Minnesota are CenterPoint Energy, Dakota Electric Association, Great Plains Natural Gas, Greater Minnesota Gas, Minnesota Energy Resources, Minnesota Power, Otter Tail Power, and Xcel Energy.

  • Energy Assistance (regulated utilities only). Based on a Public Utilities Commission decision, any regulated utility customer with a pending or approved Energy Assistance application is protected from shutoff through April 30, 2022. This is a special protection for the 2021-2022 heating season only.
  • RentHelpMN *Applications are no longer accepted (regulated utilities only). Based on a Public Utilities Commission decision, any regulated utility customer with a pending or approved RentHelpMN application is protected from shutoff through April 30, 2022. This is a special protection for the 2021-2022 heating season only.
  • Cold Weather Rule (all utilities). Between October 1 and April 30,  all utilities are required by law to follow certain notification requirements about a potential shutoff. Do not ignore utility notices – it is your responsibility to arrange a payment plan with the utility (and stick with it), or they can shut you off. Utilities must arrange a plan that considers your household’s financial circumstances and any extenuating circumstances that you face. Customers of regulated utilities who make less than 50% of the state median income ($46,550 for a family of four) cannot be required to pay more than 10% of their household income toward current and past-due bills.  Do not agree to a payment plan that is unaffordable for you. If you have trouble arranging an acceptable payment plan with your utility, contact the Public Utilities Commission Consumer Affairs Office for assistance at 800-657-3782 or consumer.puc@state.mn.us. That said, the Cold Weather Rule is the legal minimum that a utility must meet. Many are willing to do much more to work with customers to prevent you from getting shut off.
  • Medical device protection (all utilities). If you have medical equipment that is needed to keep you or a household member alive, your household qualifies for medical account protection under state law. If you think you qualify, call your utility and request medical account status. They may give you forms to complete and will require a doctor’s note. If you are overdue on your bills, they will also require you to make (and keep) a payment agreement to pay back your arrears. If you and your utility disagree about whether a medical device qualifies you for this protection, or if you cannot come to an agreement on a reasonable payment plan, consult the Public Utilities Commission Consumer Affairs Office for assistance.
  • Military personnel protection (all utilities). State law forbids utilities from disconnecting the utility service of a residential customer if a member of the household has been issued orders for active duty if the household creates (and keeps) a payment plan with the utility provider.

If you are behind on your bills and worried about a disconnection but don’t qualify for shutoff protection under any of the above circumstances, we encourage you to reach out to your utility to arrange a payment plan. Regardless of a household’s income, utilities are required to make payment arrangements with their customers and must consider a customer’s financial situation and any extenuating circumstances of the household. If you receive a disconnection notice, contact your utility right away. You may have a limited time to respond before the disconnection takes place. 

Additionally, there is Energy Assistance and other assistance available. Many assistance programs have plentiful funding this year, so don’t hesitate to apply. When in doubt, contact the Public Utilities Commission Consumer Affairs Office. They will work with your utility provider and you to help you figure out a plan to prevent disconnection or get reconnected. You can also reach out to me at carmenc@cubminnesota.org or 651-300-4701 ext. 2. I will be happy to identify resources that may help you pay for your bills and avoid disconnection.

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Author: Carmen Carruthers

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