The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) lifted a moratorium on electricity disconnections at a Friday meeting, allowing private electricity companies to shut off power to people at the end of June.
The shutoff moratorium was in place for the better part of 2020 due to the crushing economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and three now-resigned PUC commissioners reinstated it in response to the further financial hardships caused by the February winter storm.
The moratorium will be lifted on June 18, two days before a forecasted hotter-than-normal summer arrives. Private electricity companies will be required to send a 10-day “re-notification.” Shutoffs can resume in the final week of June.
"That’s going to be the time when people really need to use their air conditioner," Betty Gregory said.
Betty is a community advocate with CEER. The 70-year-old retiree lives in Houston's fifth ward with her husband, Weldon Gregory.
"We don't exist," he said, describing how residents of the firth ward are treated. "We're invisible."
"They’re not doing anything for this area to help us get anything," he said. "We apply for certain benefits, and next thing you know is your letter back then you don’t qualify. You make too much money. Okay, I’m a dollar above the poverty level, but I make too much money. You know, what kind of crap is that?"
The couple lives on about $1,800 in social security benefits per month. They're still waiting for assistance to repair damage from Hurricane Harvey — which battered the area in 2017 — and February's winter storm burst several pipes in their home.
"It does get too depressing trying to deal with all of these things back to back, in a row," Betty said.
Last month, the couple didn't have enough money to cover all their expenses. They had to choose between the water and electricity bills. They chose electricity because of the approaching heat.
Nonetheless, Betty said she's "blessed." Her son lives nearby and provides a safety net when needed, and the social security is usually enough to get by. She said there are people in the area who have barely survived the past year.
"And now we get to this point — people talking about making it where our lights and our gas and our water getting turned off," she said. "This is unbelievable. This is unreal."
Because they own their home, the couple doesn't qualify for the Texas Rent Relief Program, which provides means-tested relief for rent and utilities.
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs oversees the Rent Relief Program. They wrote, “TDHCA's Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program and, in some cases, the Community Services Block Grant program, can be used to help pay for utility bill costs” for homeowners.
“You can search for area administrators by using our Help for Texans website. Select the utility bill payment help button, scroll down and enter your city or county and then click the Find Help button. A list of administrators will open in another browser tab. You will need to contact the administrator(s) and work with them on an application.”
The lifting of the moratorium could be deadly. A GateHouse Media investigation found more than 100 Texans died from heat-related causes — in their own homes — from 2008 through 2018, and that many of those who died were trying to cut back on electricity use because they feared disconnections.
"It’s inexcusable," said Austin-based energy and climate consultant Doug Lewin. "Shouldn’t be allowed to happen in a state with as many resources and as much wealth as we have."
For months, a coalition of private energy corporations pushed for an end to the disconnection moratorium. On June 1, recently appointed PUC commissioner Will McAdams joined them, agreeing that the hold on disconnections was untenable for the market, as well as consumers.
Echoing landlords who pushed to continue evictions during the pandemic, McAdams argued that keeping people's lights and air conditioning on despite past-due bills would lead to an ever-increasing amount of consumer debt.
"In some cases, these liabilities could amount to seven months of overdue bills before the Commission may be able to readdress the issue in the fall," he said.
He also wrote that "the urgency of the situation has passed.”
Chairman Peter Lake agreed during Friday’s open meeting. The decision was unanimous — two votes in favor.
A quarter million households in Austin and San Antonio combined owed an average of $600 for past-due bills as of late May. The moratorium only applied to private electricity companies, which operate in the deregulated market that covers most of the state, including Dallas and Houston.
Austin Energy and San Antonio's CPS — which are municipally owned — have not announced a resumption date for disconnections, and the massive conglomerates that dominate most of the deregulated market did not answer questions about when they'll resume shutoffs or how many people are behind on bills.
Tim Morstad, an electric utilities analyst with AARP Texas, encouraged customers who owe money to look into deferred payment plans, which can stretch out past-due balances over several months. But, he warned, deferred payment plans often come with a "switch hold" for consumers in the deregulated market, where people choose from a handful of private providers.
"Which means that once you enter into a deferred payment plan, the state is going to prevent you from switching to another retail electric provider and starting service with another company until your bills are completely paid off," he said. "That’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s something that electricity customers need to consider before they enter into a deferred payment plan."
He said a resumption of shutoffs is likely to have an outsize effect on retired people who rely on fixed incomes. AARP Texas wants to see the moratorium extended.
"Electricity usage goes up in the summer. Electricity bills go up as people use air conditioning to stay safe and cool," he said. "It’s really important to make sure that the power keeps flowing to customers in need."
Tony Reames is an assistant professor and director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
He also said studies show, in areas of the U.S. where data is available, that shutoffs disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous and Latinx people.
"I don’t believe that shutoffs should necessarily be the result of nonpayment," Reames said. "And I think we could do some additional data analysis and root cause analysis to understand why people can’t afford their bills. It’s not always just that they don’t have the income, but there are other reasons — like energy efficiency."
The Texas legislature considered a variety of direct cash assistance in response to the winter storm. All of the efforts failed.
Peter Cramton is an economics professor at University of Cologne and former vice chair of the ERCOT board.
"(Direct cash assistance) is a good idea, and ultimately, it saves Texans money," he said. "Because if you put people out on the street, it is actually more costly to Texans to manage the consequences of that."
Betty Gregory wondered why the state's massive rainy day fund wasn't used for cash relief.
"Excuse me for getting emotional, but this is ridiculous," she said.
"Now, do I know what the solution is? Probably not. But I know what the solution is not."