Maine regulators initiate inquiry into effect of COVID-19 on customers’ ability to pay utility bills

In response to the economic and social disruption accompanying the spread of COVID-19, the commission in mid-March declared a moratorium on utility disconnections until further notice

The Maine Public Utilities Commission on April 28 initiated an inquiry into the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on customers’ ability to pay their bills from transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities, as well as natural gas local distribution companies (LDCs).

The commission said that its inquiry will also involve any federal resources newly available to customers of T&D utilities and LDCs to manage their utility payments or to assist the utilities themselves with meeting their ongoing obligations.

The commission noted: “Since at least the beginning of 2020, a novel coronavirus causing an illness known as Covid-19 has created a global pandemic. The pandemic has led to a sea change in daily life, with certain gatherings of 10 or more people prohibited and most schools and businesses closed, or their operations altered, to minimize human proximity and encourage social distancing to slow the spread of the virus and preserve critical public-health resources.”

In response to the economic and social disruption accompanying the spread of COVID-19, the commission in mid-March declared a moratorium on utility disconnections until further notice.

The commission added that rapidly rising levels of unemployment in Maine and other adverse effects of the coronavirus pandemic raise questions about customers’ ability to pay their utility bills, the effect of that and of closed businesses on utilities’ accounts receivable, and the potential for significant future rate adjustments from those circumstances. In addition, the commission said, it is possible that federal legislation could be adopted, federal agencies’ rules amended, or policies adopted that directly affect customers’ ability to pay and utilities’ management of their operations.

The commission said that to help it understand the changing landscape of federal resources available to T&D utilities, LDCs, and their customers, interested persons — including the utilities — are asked to comment on these issues reasonably promptly as information becomes available:

  • Please describe any new federal legislation or changes in federal regulations or policies that are intended to assist utility customers in managing their utility bills under these circumstances
  • Please describe any new federal legislation or changes in federal regulations or policies that are designed to assist utilities with their ongoing operations and obligations under these circumstances
  • Please provide information about programs under consideration, or that have been implemented, in other states to address the issues raised in the notice of inquiry

The commission said that T&D utilities and LDCs are to file certain information in the docket (Docket No. 2020-00136) by the 15th of each month beginning in May, including — for T&D utilities — the billed numbers of customers and kWh sales for the most recent calendar month and quarter, and a comparison of those amounts with the same period in the prior year; and — for LDCs — a comparison of charge-offs as a percentage of billed revenue for the prior 24 months.