- 16 utilities received $1.25 billion in tax benefits from the government's Covid-19 economic relief package, the CARES Act, while also shutting off customer power almost 1 million times from July 2020 to June 2021, according to a report published Thursday by the Center for Biological Diversity and BailoutWatch.
- NextEra Energy shut off power most frequently, the report concluded, while receiving $41 million from the federal stimulus. During the pandemic, its Florida Power & Light (FPL) subsidiary shut off customer power more than 470,000 times, according to the report.
- FPL officials say the report's "blatantly false narrative" omits the work it has done to help customers throughout the pandemic, such as providing $75 million in financial assistance through bill credits for low-income and small business customers and other measures.
The utility sector blasted the report as "misleading" and "disingenuous," but other advocates say its conclusions are worth highlighting.
"It is absurd that the authors are misleading readers by attempting to directly compare net operating loss tax policies to direct cash assistance payments that were made through the CARES Act," Brian Reil, spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, said in a statement. The group represents investor-owned utilities.
The report compiled disconnection counts by reviewing state utility dockets and calling state commissions. Data on corporate tax benefits resulting from the CARES Act came from U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
"It's no mystery that there's constant tension between the interests of a for-profit utility operation and customer service," said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program. The advocacy group was not involved with the report, but he said it is "important to point out potential inconsistencies between corporate utility practices and their policies and procedures around utility shutoffs, especially around a pandemic."
"In general, I think the report is making some important points," said Slocum.
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March 2020 and provided a wide range of supports for businesses, including tax deferrals and refunds that have been a boon for energy companies.
"The authors of this report appear not to understand how electric companies work with their state regulators to support customers who are experiencing financial hardships," Reil said. He also said the CARES Act increased funding to help customers pay energy bills through programs states or their community nonprofits typically run.
Utilities are not disputing the number of disconnections, though Reil added they are "always an electric company's last resort for dealing with unpaid bills."
Six utilities were responsible for more than 90% of the nearly 1 million shutoffs. Southern Co. disconnected about 187,000 households while receiving $35 million from the CARES Act, according to the report. Duke Energy shut off power to almost 183,000 households while receiving $633 million from CARES.
"It's appalling that utility companies cut power to countless families throughout the pandemic while raking in taxpayer bailout money," Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's energy justice program, said in a statement.
FPL officials say the report does not give a clear picture of its disconnections, which it suspended for six months in 2020.
"The vast majority of customers disconnected for nonpayment were quickly reconnected, most within just 24 hours," FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath said in an email. "FPL's reconnection rate during COVID-19 is similar to pre-pandemic levels. That's because we work so closely with our customers."
Southern Co. declined to comment for this story.
Duke Energy called the report "completely misleading."
"No one has done more to support customers throughout the pandemic. We were one of the first companies to immediately halt disconnections for unpaid bills and waive credit card and late payment fees," Duke spokesperson Neil Nissan said in an email.
The utility also set up "completely flexible payment plans to ensure customers who were experiencing economic hardships could have flexibility," said Nissan, and it provided more than $11 million dollars in local relief.
The report's authors, however, say the report shows utility loyalties remain with shareholders.
"From the data we analyzed, it is clear that private utilities prioritize profits and shareholder satisfaction over all else," BailoutWatch data analyst Chris Kuveke said in a statement.