Oregon Public Utility Commission staff, in a Sept. 17 report, recommended that the commission authorize staff, as well as affected utilities and stakeholders, to execute three stipulations incorporating three term sheets — involving energy, water, and telecommunications — that were developed during the commission’s investigation into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on utility customers.
As noted by staff, Oregon Gov. Brown on March 8 declared a statewide state of emergency due to the public health threat posed by the novel infectious coronavirus, COVID-19. Several extensions of that order have been issued, and the state of emergency is currently extended to Nov. 3, staff said.
After conducting a special public meeting regarding the pandemic’s impact on customers in June, the commission assembled a team of representatives from across the agency to, for instance, ensure the commission takes an integrated and timely approach to COVID-19-related issues, and that all relevant aspects of the challenge are considered.
Staff noted that generally, there was a great deal of agreement, collaboration, and compromise by the parties to achieve the goals to protect utility customers during and after the pandemic. Agreements on the Water and Energy Term Sheets are being finalized, staff said, adding that while strong progress has been made on the Telecommunications Term Sheet, there is still work that needs to be done.
Agreement is in the process of finalization on the Energy Term Sheet and will hopefully be endorsed by Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, Avista, Idaho Power, Cascade Natural Gas, and others, prior to a Sept. 24 special public meeting, staff said.
Major features of the Energy Utilities’ Term Sheet, for instance, include:
- Disconnects for small commercial customers would not start until Dec. 1, and only after certain proactive customer notifications are made
- Disconnect notices to residential customers will not be sent until April 1, 2021, and only after certain proactive customer notifications are made. Utilities will provide that their notices are accessible to customers who are not English speakers based on languages relevant to that utility’s customers
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, Time Payment Arrangements (TPAs) will be offered up to 24 months for residential customers, and up to six months to non-residential customers
- Utilities will not accrue and collect late payment fees, interest, and penalties for all residential customers retroactive to the date of the start of the utility’s disconnect moratorium and through Oct. 1, 2022
- Utilities and customer groups will jointly petition the Joint Legislative Emergency Board for additional taxpayer-funded energy bill payment assistance payment funding ($30-$50m request if federal funds become available)
- Utilities and customer groups agree to jointly petition the Oregon Legislature to increase the “Low Income Assistance” charge on residential customers’ electric bill from 69 cents to $1. Gas utilities will, in accordance with legislative action, proportionately increase their public purpose charge to raise funds for low-income gas bill payment assistance
Among other things, staff said that the three term sheets contain provisions that provide necessary protections for residential and small commercial customers of the participating utilities during and after the pandemic, and establish mechanisms for additional action based on a continuing evaluation of circumstances related to COVID-19.