As part of its ongoing “Prepare Now” campaign, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) released its annual report on Universal Service Programs, along with responses from electric and natural gas utility companies to the PUC’s call for enhanced efforts to help consumers cope with winter heating costs.
“Access to power, heat, water and telecommunications is an essential part of protecting the health and welfare of our citizens, but every year thousands of Pennsylvanians struggle to afford these vital services,” said PUC Chairman Gladys M. Brown. “The information released today underscores the continuing need in our communities and also highlights the collaborative efforts being made to assist consumers across our state.”
“Universal Service” is the principle that everyone should have access to essential utility services. Universal Service is promoted through a set of state-mandated policies, protections and programs intended to provide a safety net for eligible low-income utility customers, including:
- Customer Assistance Program (CAP), which provides subsidized utility service to eligible households based on household size and income;
- The Low Income Usage Reduction Program (LIURP), which includes free weatherization and other conservation measures, installation of energy efficient appliances, energy audits and education about conservation;
- The Customer Assistance and Referral Evaluation Services (CARES) program, which provides information about available programs and/or referrals to community agencies to help consumers address family emergencies, health issues or other extenuating circumstances; and
- Hardship Funds, programs supported by utility contributions and public donations that which can assist individuals in paying outstanding debts to utility companies.
Additionally, the PUC, utilities, and human service agencies across the state strongly promote the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance with home heating bills during the winter months. The application period for LIHEAP crisis and regular grants has opened and continues through April 1, 2016.
According to the PUC’s Universal Service Report, there are more than 1 million confirmed low-income electric and natural gas customers (household income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty income guideline) being served by utilities under the PUC’s jurisdiction. While unconfirmed, utilities estimate that nearly 2 million customers may actually fit that classification – potentially including about 27 percent of all utility households in Pennsylvania.
The report also documents nearly $460 million in annual utility assistance provided to households across the state and demonstrates that consumers who participate in these safety net programs are more likely to continue paying their bills and maintain their utility service. In fact, the most recent PUC data shows that 83 percent of the households participating in Customer Assistance Programs were able to preserve their heat and other vital services.
“This data demonstrates the size and scope of in-need utility customers across the state, just how close many families may be to a utility crisis and the important role of various safety-net programs,” said Chairman Brown.
Further underscoring the existing need in Pennsylvania communities, the PUC’s annual Cold Weather Survey, released in December 2015, documented more than 24,000 households entering the winter without heat-related utility service. Every year the state’s electric and natural gas distribution companies under the PUC’s jurisdiction are required to survey residential properties where service has been terminated and has not been reconnected during the calendar year.
As part of the PUC’s annual “Prepare Now” campaign, the Commissioners sent an October 2015 letter to all Pennsylvania electric and natural gas utility companies under the PUC’s jurisdiction, asking them to join the Commission in reaching out to consumers about winter assistance programs and emphasizing that utilities have more flexibility to make allowances for payment-troubled customers than the PUC does under the law. The responses from each utility, along with summaries of all their ongoing outreach efforts, are detailed here.
Consumers experiencing difficulty maintaining utility service are encouraged to reach out as early as possible to their utility companies; local human service and non-profit organizations; and state agencies such as the Department of Human Services and PUC for information about the many programs available to help maintain essential utility services.
If you or your business have questions regarding utility law, natural gas law, energy law, or real estate law, contact attorney Jeffrey A. Franklin at Prince Law Offices, P.C.