Concerns about a rise in utility shut-offs in Connecticut led to a hearing Friday before the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

The number of Eversource customers disconnected for nonpayment has doubled in the past four years. In 2018, the company shut off power 80,700 times.

Those numbers were the backdrop to a hearing Friday before the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority in Hartford.

Meanwhile, both Eversource and United Illuminating sent executives to defend their record on reaching out to customers in need and to say the companies stand ready to help address the so-called affordability gap.

A 2017 report commissioned by Operation Fuel said about 320,000 households in the state struggle to bridge the gap between what they can afford and what appears on their utility bills, to the tune of $450 million. That’s an average of $1,400 per affected household.

The federal LIHEAP program is supposed to address that gap, and it is the primary source of residential home energy assistance in Connecticut.

“Those dollars are not cutting it, they just aren’t,” said Taren O’Connor from the Office of Consumer Counsel. “They’re serving a certain portion, but there are a lot of other people in Connecticut who are in need.”

She said affordability is front and center for her office, which is the utility consumer watchdog in the state. One issue is that not everyone knows that help is available from the utility companies themselves, in the form of payment plans and debt forgiveness.

“This issue is at the forefront of the work that we do every day. It can be a struggle, it can be frustrating, to be quite honest,” she said of spreading awareness of consumer hardship programs. “We have a lot of tough conversations around the low-income programs. How can we be doing better?”

But other advocates took a more cynical view on why there’s low uptake for hardship programs in the state.

“The companies have articulated that they are absolutely not going to advertise those programs,” said Bonnie Roswig of the Center for Children’s Advocacy.

She said “coding” customers for hardship should mean that people pay no more than $75 a month on their electric bills and that they cannot be shut off. But it’s often not the first option offered when a customer contacts the company.

“We have to do a better job — people just don’t know about it,” she said, urging the regulators to hold companies accountable to train their call center staff to better address the issue.

Roswig spoke of her clients who often will go a whole summer without lights, refrigeration or air conditioning simply to save money to pay their arrears and get reconnected as the cold weather returns.

“People are without lights and without heat for many, many months of the year,” she said, noting that this impacts other issues, like food insecurity, success in school for children and keeping a roof over one’s  head. “If you don’t have utilities, you can be evicted from where you live.”

Connecticut has some of the highest electric rates in the country, on a cent-per-kilowatt-hour basis. But United Illuminating’s Chuck Goodwin told those at the hearing he doesn’t believe that’s the whole story.

“We are a relatively wealthy state, and so when you look at the affordability of electricity from a more broad perspective, we fall closer to the middle of the pack,” he said.

He did acknowledge that affordability is an important social issue and that the gap between rich and poor in the state continues to widen.

“We believe we need to avoid inefficient solutions that drive up cost to all customers, so we have to have a cost benefit analysis to this,” he explained. “We need to avoid relying on programs that address the burden on LMI [low- and middle-income] customers by shifting costs to all other customers and increasing rates to the non-LMI population.”

Eversource’s Jessica Cain touted the company’s efforts to help struggling households, saying energy efficiency programs now save $50 million a year for low- and middle-income customers, while hardship customers benefit from a total of $20 million via payment forgiveness.

She denied the charge that such programs remain hidden or hard to access.

“Reaching our customers with energy assistance information is important,” Cain said. “Beyond just those who tell us their hardship, we have to find those we don’t know about yet.”

She said Eversource advertises its programs via bill inserts, as well as ads in public spaces, particularly in towns with the highest arrears.

This informational hearing in front of new PURA chair Marissa Paslick Gillett did not result in formalized recommendations, but all sides acknowledged the importance of airing the issue in all its complexity.

“Thank you for this — this is the conversation that needs to start happening,” said OCC’s O’Connor.

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  1. What I have personally experienced is that Eversource considers you delinquent when a monthly bill is issued with a carryover balance from the previous month. If the 2nd month’s bill’s total balance is not received by its due date, a Shut Off notice is mailed.

    Eversource has simply gotten much more militant about collections and less understanding about financial ‘pinches’ experienced by their customers.

  2. Unfortunately, the relationship between Eversource and our state government and its regulators, has become incestuous. From soliciting campaign donations for the former governor. Extracting taxes and funding for EnergizeCT and the Green Bank, and political desire to keep the Hartford/Eversource Marathon alive. Residents have lost management and regulatory control of this utility. I also suspect our state union pension funds may have a significant investment in this firm. That is why shutoffs are rampant, and we are paying some of the highest costs for electricity in the nation.

    1. All utilities have an incestuous relationship with government. They are regulated in every aspect of their business including who they buy power from. They are forced to buy high priced and unreliable solar and wind power while limiting the purchase of low priced, carbon free, and reliable hydropower from Canada. Prices are high BECAUSE of government. Then they have the unmitigated gall to demand that the utilities fix the problem they created by “forgiving” unpaid bills.( ie raising the rates on those who pay)

      Want the poor to be able to afford energy? Allow Natural gas pipelines and buy more power from Quebec. Don’t make the middle class who already carry the burden of paying for hyper generous state social programs to bear the cost of “free” electricity.

      PS Paying to advertise give away programs is just plain dumb.

  3. Ironically I just spent over (3) hours on hold or waiting for a callback because my elderly disabled mothers power was shut off while she was out of town. They claimed because they mailed her a letter that they met their obligation however in the last 30 days when I reviewed her account online there was no mention of a scheduled disconnect date nor was there any record (in her Account History) that she had been mailed a disconnect/shutoff notice. Instead, for a $152 past due balance they shut off her power (which they had to physically go to her house and do) and will charge her $107 to have it restored (they are charging her the same day restore service fee despite the fact that a credit card payment was made 2 days earlier). I was shocked that when I called “Customer Service” they suggested that my mother should have called and told them she was going to be out of town and that there would not be anyone in the home…seriously, what single, elderly woman is going to do that? In addition, they said they are not required to include everything they mail out in a customers account just the customer statements, is this true? If they had included the disconnect notice they had mailed or a note on the account regarding a scheduled termination in the same format they use when they shut the power off, the disconnect could have been completely avoided. Being from California I was truly disheartened by the lack of regard for a disabled senior citizen and the lack of willingness to correct the situation. This first hand experience with Eversource and there methodology for sharing information with its customers both online and via mailings is in serious need of a compliance review. In addition, when considering your senior community understand that many do not have the ability (mental and/or physical) to go to there local governments and ask for the assistance they may need/require.

    1. Hi Suzanne, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

    2. Hi Suzanne, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

  4. I am disturbed by Chuck Goodwin of UI’s comment: “We need to avoid relying on programs that address the burden on LMI [low- and middle-income] customers by shifting costs to all other customers and increasing rates to the non-LMI population.” Our Jewish-Muslim-Christian values teach EXACTLY the opposite of that. We are OBLIGED TO HELP those who are less fortunate and cannot afford the cost of electric service. So transferring the cost burden of those in the LMI category to all ratepayers is EXACTLY what we should do. Instead of shutting off those customers, the utilities should arrange a home visit to discover why their bills are unaffordable and help them make changes to appliances or lifestyle that makes their electric service affordable. In this nation, electric service is essential to a safe and healthy life, so immediate shut-offs cannot be the answer.

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