Published June 23, 2020
Last Thursday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) adopted recommendations from CUB and partners to reconnect gas service to thousands of Minnesotans who are currently shut off and to strengthen consumers’ shutoff protections during COVID-19 and beyond.
CUB has joined together with Energy CENTS Coalition, Minnesota Community Action Partnership, and Legal Services Advocacy Project since this spring with the goal of ensuring everyone has electricity and natural gas service during the current public health crisis — even those who cannot afford minimum payments right now. Together, we have advocated for actions by utilities and the state of Minnesota.
The state’s regulated utilities are not currently shutting off service to residential customers who are behind on their bills. (This applies to investor-owned utilities and Dakota Electric Association. Other co-ops and municipal utilities are regulated by local boards, and the PUC cannot tell those utilities when or whether to disconnect customers.)
However, more than 6,000 households remain disconnected from electricity and gas service, because some regulated utilities are failing to restore service to customers who were shut off prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Minnesota Energy Resources reports reconnecting zero households during the month of April, while more than 3,200 remained disconnected. CenterPoint Energy reconnected just 1% of their more than 2,300 disconnected households in April. (Xcel Energy, on the other end of the spectrum, had few disconnected customers to begin with and has reconnected the large majority of them.)
At its hearing on Thursday, the PUC adopted the recommendations of our coalition, including:
- Minnesota Energy Resources and CenterPoint must immediately begin reconnecting customers.
- All utilities must explain the actions they’ve taken to reconnect customers, the reasons they have not been able to reconnect everyone, and what they will do to restore service to all occupied residential properties for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency.
- During the COVID-19 state of emergency, regulated utilities are prohibited from disconnecting customers; charging reconnection fees, service deposits, late fees, interest, or penalties; and doing negative reporting to credit agencies. (Overdue bills that had previously been sent to collection agencies may still impact customers’ credit.)
- Regulated utilities’ reporting requirements are improved, which will make it easier to monitor things like trends in the numbers of customers disconnected and the number of customers overdue on their bills.
Additionally, the PUC will be taking a closer look at when utilities grant — and when they deny — shutoff protections for people who depend on electricity for medical reasons, and COVID-related information from utilities must be translated into languages other than English.
This PUC order is a big step toward protecting consumers from utility shutoffs, during COVID and beyond. However, we know it will not be the last step. CUB, together with our partners, will monitor utility filings that are due in the coming days and months, and we expect more work will be needed.
Thank you to the many people who have contacted CUB and shared their experiences over the last three months. You have helped us to understand how policies like these are actually being put in place, and where there are still issues that need to be addressed.
If you are having trouble keeping up with your utility bills, you can contact CUB for assistance (651-300-4701, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Facebook message). Even though regulated utilities may not penalize customers for nonpayment right now, it is still important to make a payment plan with your utility and make partial payments if you’re able.