The House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an investigation this week into reports of high customer shut-off rates by six utility companies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The committee gave Dominion Energy, DTE Energy, Duke Energy Corp., Exelon Corp., NextEra Energy and Southern Co. until April 4 to provide customer shut-off data, arrearage data and information on energy assistance programs.
"Despite broad assurances from the electric utility industry in early 2020, we have seen alarming reports of high customer shut-off rates during the [COVID-19] pandemic for certain utilities," committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J.; Energy Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Rush, D-Ill.; and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chair Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said in letters to the utilities.
The investigation comes amid concerns about rising energy prices and how they could affect consumer debt.
The letters note total utility arrearages grew 10% from 2020 to 2021, with the average arrearage growing more than 20% in that time. "These trends, coupled with rising energy prices and the destabilization in volatile global energy markets as a result of the crisis in Ukraine, are especially concerning for low-income families," the House lawmakers said.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, many states implemented moratoriums on utility shut-offs. A National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners map of state shut-off moratoriums last updated in September indicates that all mandatory COVID-related bans on utility disconnections have expired or were set to end by the start of this year.
The utility companies that received letters from the committee were listed in a September report by nonprofits Bailout Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity as having the most shut-offs during the pandemic among "selected" utilities.
Combined, the six companies received $1 billion in benefits through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and they cut the electricity to more than 930,500 households between July 2020 and June 2021, accounting for 94% of electric utility shut-offs, according to the report.
"In the spring of 2020, the utility industry made the argument to this committee, as well as to other committees and agencies, that a federal mandatory shut[-]off moratorium was not necessary because a patchwork of state and local moratoriums had already begun to take shape," the Democratic lawmakers said in the letters.
Among other things, the lawmakers asked the utilities to describe their plans for addressing the needs of their "most vulnerable" customers and to provide an assessment of energy assistance need in their service territories and whether the expiration of the expanded child tax credit at the end of last year could lead to more shut-offs.
Senate Democrats in fall 2020 took a similar look at how utilities were addressing the financial challenges some of their customers were facing during the pandemic.
In the last two years, Dominion has helped its customers in several ways, including working with stakeholders to provide more than $200 million in arrears forgiveness; suspending disconnections for nonpayment, first voluntarily and then in compliance with state orders; expanding funding for the company’s EnergyShare heating and cooling assistance program; and connecting customers to other energy-assistance programs, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Ryan Frazier, Dominion spokesman, said in an email.
Exelon’s utilities took various measures during the COVID-19 pandemic to support their customers, such as connecting more than 650,000 customers to $430 million in energy assistance last year, according to Nicholas Alexopulos, a company spokesman.
“Our utilities suspended terminations prior to state mandates,” Alexopulos said in an email. “During the height of the pandemic – when a financial backstop was vital for our most vulnerable residential customers – we also increased flexible payment plan options and reconnected service for those whose electricity had previously been terminated.”
Duke is preparing to respond to the committee, Keith Richardson, company spokesman, said. The other utilities involved in the panel’s investigation didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Editor's Note: We have updated the story to include comments from Exelon. Also, a previous version of this story erred in its description of state shut-off bans. Wyoming did not ban utility shut-offs.