AZ Corporation Commission adopts moratorium on electric utility disconnections


Earlier this month, the Phoenix New Times reported that 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman of Sun City West had her electricity cut off last September by APS when temperatures were in the triple digits. The exposure to heat resulted in her death. The medical examiner wrote that her death occurred by “environmental heat exposure in setting of significant cardiovascular disease.” On 107-Degree Day, APS Cut Power to Stephanie Pullman’s Home. She Didn’t Live.

Many states have regulations or state laws that prohibit public utilities from shutting off the electricity during extreme temperatures, either below freezing or hot temperatures, or a date-based time frame. See generally, State Disconnection Policies | The LIHEAP Clearinghouse. According to this website, Arizona supposedly had a temperature based disconnection policy:

Utilities advised not to terminate residential service when the customer has an inability to pay and where weather will be especially dangerous to health (usually 32° F or below for winter and triple digits for summer) as determined by the Commission. There are also rules prohibiting disconnection of service for certain medical reasons. Several of Arizona’s energy vendors enforce moratoriums with varying criteria.

Stephanie Pullman had a medical reason, i.e., significant cardiovascular disease, and APS cut off her electricity during triple-digit heat. So if this is the policy in Arizona, why did this happen to Stephanie Pullman?

And why has it taken nine months for the Arizona Corporation Commission to learn what happened to her and attempt to address this tragedy? Arizona bans power shutoffs until Oct. 15 after death of Sun City West woman:

Arizonans who are late on their utility bills this summer can’t be shut off from power until Oct. 15 under an emergency rule passed by regulators Thursday that takes effect immediately.

The commission staff proposed the emergency rule at the request of Chairman Robert Burns. Commissioners made some amendments to the proposal that extended the protections for customers.

Customers who are shut off during the hot months will be required to enter a payment plan once the seasonal moratorium ends. They then will have four months to catch up on their bills.

The emergency rule passed 4-0 with commissioner Lea Márquez Peterson out on a pre-planned family vacation.

The emergency rule making was passed following news that a 72-year-old Sun City West woman died last year after Arizona Public Service Co. cut her power because she was behind on payments.

The emergency moratorium on utility shutoffs will protect customers while the Corporation Commission takes a deeper dive into the issue. The commission will accept public comment on shutoff rules for utilities and eventually pass a new policy on when companies are allowed to disconnect customers.

Following the news of the customer’s death, APS announced it would voluntarily stop disconnections for at least 30 days. The utility has reconnected 171 people in the past week even though they hadn’t paid what they owed, APS said.

The commission’s emergency rule affects all regulated electric utilities in the state.

Unregulated utilities, however, are another story. Some Arizona electric companies are shutting off the power despite emergency rule:

[S]ome utility customers in Arizona continue to be threatened by their electric company with power shut-offs because their electric company isn’t regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission and instead is a political subdivision of the state.

The biggest among them is Salt River Project, with about 1 million customers. SRP is making some changes for customers who are behind on payments, but not to the extent of stopping shut-offs.

The state has several electrical districts and municipal utilities not covered by the commission action.

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It’s unclear what the rest of the state’s various electric companies will do in light of the Corporation Commission’s emergency rule.

Paul Orme, who serves as general counsel to Electrical District No. 4 in Eloy, said no changes have been discussed at that utility, although it has few residential customers.

Representatives from some other utilities, like Page Power and Water, could not be reached.

SRP took voluntary action. On Thursday, the utility said it will offer more credit to customers who are behind on bills, and that will result in fewer people going without air conditioning this summer. But it’s not stopping shut-offs altogether.

SRP has a prepaid program called M-Power. Two years ago, The Arizona Republic reported that an M-Power customer ran out of credit, lost power, and subsequently was found dead in his home.

SRP this summer is providing four credit advances a month to customers on M-Power, which allows them to keep their power. Usually SRP only offers two such advances a month.

About 15% of SRP customers are on M-Power. They lose power on average nearly once a month when they run out of credit after a warning from their in-home display. The average shut-off lasts two hours, according to the company.

SRP also said Thursday that for customers on traditional rate plans who get billed at the end of the month, SRP will not disconnect anyone unless they are $300 or more overdue. Usually that threshold for a disconnect at SRP is $150. Those customers get up to six credit extensions annually.

“SRP understands the significance of keeping customers in service during Arizona’s hot summer months,” SRP spokesman Scott Harelson said. “We care about our customers’ safety and that is why we have many programs in place to assist those in need.”

Law was proposed, fizzled

State Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said the news of some some electric companies continuing to threaten customers with shut-offs shows the need for a new law, which he actually proposed earlier this year.

Senate Bill 1542 would have prevented utility shut-offs when temperatures were over 90 degrees and below 32 degrees. It was assigned to the Senate Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who did not give it a hearing.

“The actions the Corporation Commission took don’t solve the problem,” Mendez said Friday. “We are still going to need state action if we are going to see protections for everybody.”

Because the state Legislature already has adjourned, the bill couldn’t be passed without a rare special session, meaning any action on it is likely to have to wait until next year.

“Because of all those unprotected communities, I will be pushing for this,” Mendez said.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said he would support any lawmaker willing to work on such a law.

An under-reported related story from the Arizona Capitol Times is that Governor Doug Ducey, the ice cream man hired by Koch Industries to run their Southwest subsidiary formerly know as the state of Arizona, says the Arizona Corporation Commission has overstepped its regulatory authority with this moratorium, and he and his fellow authoritarian GOP henchmen in the Arizona legislature intend to reign in the commission’s constitutional powers. Corporation Commission overstepping its authority, Ducey says:

Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday the Arizona Corporation Commission has been getting into areas beyond its constitutional authority to set utility rates.

“There’s been a bit of mission creep,” the governor said.

Ducey’s comments were most immediately about the report of the death last year of an elderly customer of Arizona Public Service whose power was turned off in the middle of summer because she only paid a part of her bill. It was not until that death became public this past month – and it was learned that APS had shut off power last year to 110,000 customers – that the utility agreed to temporarily suspend cutoffs.

The reports, first unveiled by Phoenix New Times, has led three commissioners to seek to revamp rules about when a utility can shut off power.

But the governor said he’s not sure that the commission is the agency that, by itself, should be setting the rules.

Ducey’s comments did not stop there. He also said that the commission, which is constitutionally created, may be overstepping its bounds in telling utilities how much of their power has to come from renewable energy.

Those contentions drew a surprised reaction from Bob Burns who chairs the five-member panel.

“Maybe he ought to read the constitution,” Burns told Capitol Media Services. And he specifically rejected Ducey’s contention that the question of when a utility can shut off power is an issue to be decided by the Legislature and the governor.

“We have rule-setting authority to establish rules to have utilities follow,” said Burns. “It’s part of our charge.”

The published report of APS cutting off the energy of 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman of Sun City West led to a hastily crafted statement by the utility this past week that it was suspending its cutoffs while it reviewed its policies.

Within days, Burns directed the commission staff to craft new rules about when electricity can be shut off. The panel is supposed to look at what they find on Thursday.

Burns is not alone. Both Commissioners Boyd Dunn and Justin Olson also are seeking review of the shutoff rules.

“We should be protecting our most vulnerable,” Ducey said Monday, though he said he does not know all the facts. “But it seems as if it were avoidable.”

The governor said he would call on the commission to see “what’s possible.”

“But I also think there’s been a bit of a mission creep on the Corporation Commission beyond just setting rates,” Ducey said. “And something of this level could rise to legislation or regulation to protect Arizona’s most vulnerable.”

But Ducey did not stop there.

More than a decade ago the commission approved rules requiring utilities to generate at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources – not including nuclear – by 2025.

That occurred with some opposition from affected electric companies. And now commissioners already are talking about increasing that goal.

The governor questioned whether that’s something the regulators should be doing.

“We want to see the Corporation Commission doing what their constitutional charge is,” Ducey said. But that, he said, does not mean the elected regulators should have the last word.

“If there’s other opportunities around energy regulation and policy that the Legislature and the governor’s office should be involved in, we want to make certain that we’re involved,” Ducey said.

Does that mean he believes it should not be the commission setting the renewable energy standard but instead the Legislature?

“I think we can have some discussion on that front,” the governor said.

But Burns said having the Legislature – presumably with the governor – setting energy policy for the state ignores the specific powers given to the commission under the Arizona Constitution.

“The commission has legislative authority as well as executive authority as well as judicial authority,” he said. And that, said Burns, gives the commission the power to enact and enforce rules over its sphere of influence, meaning the utilities, just as if it were acting as the Legislature.

Burns has a unique perspective in seeking the division of power between the commission and the Legislature: He served as a state lawmaker for 20 years, including a term as Senate president.

Governor Ducey and our authoritarian GOP legislature are wholly owned by the “Kochtopus” and are not to be trusted with matters of life and death. Profits for utility companies — especially the carbon-based utilities of Koch Industries — which translate into campaign contributions and “dark money” campaigns that favor Republicans are the only thing that they really care about.

So some customer dies because they could not pay an electric bill. That’s a small price to pay for these massive campaign contributions.