PHOENIX — Surprised by reports that an elderly woman died after her power was cut off last summer, state utility regulators are moving to curb the ability of electric companies to shut off power during the hottest months of the year.
A proposed emergency rule set for consideration Thursday by the Arizona Corporation Commission would spell out that utilities cannot disconnect residential electric service from June 1 through Sept. 30. It also would bar cutting off a customer’s power if the local weather forecast includes conditions the commission determines “are especially dangerous to health,” though nothing in the proposal spells out exactly what those conditions would be.
There is precedent for what the regulators are seeking to do.
Existing rules already ban a utility from shutting off power or gas if the local weather forecast indicates that the temperature will not exceed 32 degrees for the next day. But until now there has been no similar regulation governing periods of heat.
Arizona Public Service, whose cutoff of power to a Sun City West woman last year led to her heat-related death, has agreed to support the proposal, calling it “an important step in addressing a broad community issue.”
But in a prepared statement, company officials said the questions raised go beyond the policies of utilities and regulators.
“Arizona utilities, the nonprofit sector and government agencies all have a role to play in developing an approach that heightens awareness and creates appropriate safety nets,” the company said.
The commission is looking at adopting the new rule Thursday on an emergency basis following a directive to staff by Chairman Bob Burns to push ahead immediately.
In general, state laws require a series of public hearings before an agency can implement a new rule.
But in a memo to commissioners, Elijah Abinah, director of the commission’s utilities division, said there are exceptions. One of those, he said is to “protect the public health, safety or welfare.”
If the commission approves the rule Thursday, it would take effect as soon as it was filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
APS this past week agreed to temporarily suspend power cutoffs in the wake of a Phoenix New Times story disclosing that 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman was found dead in her home last year after the company cut off power. She had paid only $125 of her $176 bill.
Tucson Electric Power and sister company UniSource Energy followed suit, also temporarily suspending shutoffs.
What also was discovered is that commission staffers previously had unilaterally eliminated a requirement for utilities to annually report the number of customers whose service had been disconnected. As it turned out, the number for APS last year was 110,000.
The proposal, if adopted, would not take customers off the financial hook.
It requires the utility to notify the customer that his or her service would have been disconnected had it not been during the four-month period when that is prohibited. More to the point, it spells out that the customer must enter into a plan to pay the outstanding balance over four months and keep paying current bills.
And the proposed rule contains something unrelated to the question of weather: It bars a utility from disconnecting a customer’s power, for any reason, unless the company’s office is open to the public on that day and the following day.
The proposal comes on the heels of Gov. Doug Ducey questioning earlier this week whether the commission, on its own, has the constitutional authority to decide when utilities can — and cannot — shut off a customer’s power.
On one hand, the governor, reacting to the reports of the death of the APS customer, called on the commission “to look at what’s possible here.”
“But I also think there’s been a bit of a mission creep on the Corporation Commission beyond just setting rates,” he said.
But Abinah, in his memo to commissioners, said that what’s being proposed here is “intertwined” with the commission’s inherent constitutional authority to set utility rates.
“A prohibition on disconnection of electric service during the summer months will likely impact the rates charged by a utility to its customers,” he told the regulators. That includes a delay in payment to the utilities for several months.
And he said there is a possibility that, in forcing utilities to keep supplying power even in the face of unpaid bills, that will increase a company’s bad debts.
“The result will be higher rates for all customers,” Abinah wrote, an issue clearly within the commission’s powers.
There was no immediate response from Tucson Electric Power or UniSource Energy Services, which are the other major suppliers of electricity that would be affected by the proposed new rules.
Salt River Project, which provides electricity in the Phoenix metro area, is not regulated by the commission. But the utility, by its own practices, already does not suspend power during the summer when the National Weather Service issues an excessive heat warning.
SRP also does not disconnect customers with a past-due balance of less than $150. And for customers who have money on deposit, there is no cutoff of service if the balance due is less than 66 percent of the amount deposited.
For utilities regulated by the commission, there are situations other than weather where the regulators have trimmed their ability to shut off service.
One, for example, is when the customer can establish through “medical documentation” that a doctor believes terminating service “would be especially dangerous to the health of a customer or a permanent resident residing on the customer’s premises.”
Closely tied to that are situations where life-supporting equipment used in the home is dependent on power.
Existing rules also say utilities cannot terminate service to the ill, elderly or handicapped who have an inability to pay unless they first notify the customer of the availability of funds from various government and social assistance agencies.
Several things can cause a customer to be designated as having an “inability to pay,” ranging from not being gainfully employed to qualifying for government assistance but having not yet received payments.
There also is a requirement to first notify any third party that the customer has designated and to give that person the opportunity to make arrangements to pay the outstanding bill.