Groups Urge Expansion of Utility Shutoff Moratorium During Covid-19 Crisis
New Data Show Existing Moratorium Has Helped More than 425,000 N.C. Families Maintain Water and Power in their Homes
Raleigh, N.C. — Nearly three dozen public interest and social justice organizations today sent a letter to Governor Roy Cooper urging him to extend and strengthen the existing moratorium on utility disconnections and late payment fees to protect families who are suffering economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic. The moratorium was enacted through Executive Order 124 on March 31 and is set to expire at the end of this month. Allowing the moratorium to end would put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of losing electricity, water and other critical services as the economic and health crisis continues to grow.
Utility reports analyzed by the groups show that more than 425,000 residential accounts would have been subject to disconnection and late payment fees in April in the absence of the moratorium, including 233,464 electric, 42,095 gas and 149,895 water and/or wastewater accounts. Even as health officials continue urging hand-washing to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, an estimated 770,000 North Carolinians, who have been protected to date, would be at risk of having their water shut off if the governor’s order expires. Additionally, more than 1,000 residential accounts that were shut off for non-payment before the moratorium took effect remained disconnected as of April 30; these include 669 served by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, 423 served by Carolina Water Service, and more.
“Thanks to the governor’s original order, hundreds of thousands of households have been spared from losing electricity or water because they couldn’t pay their bills,” said Rory McIlmoil, Senior Energy Analyst for Appalachian Voices and a lead author of the letter, which was signed by 32 groups. Other lead organizations include the NC Justice Center, Vote Solar and Natural Resources Defense Council. “But these household debts are growing, and families will be devastated if forced to pay their utility bills too soon. We appreciate the governor being open to considering our requests as he indicated to the media last week.”
The monthly utility reports also show that unpaid residential bills amounted to nearly $54 million at the end of April. However, that represents data from less than half of the utilities in the state, and excludes the largest utilities such as the two Duke Energy companies. An analysis by one of the letter’s authors, Vote Solar estimates that total household debt for all utilities including electric, gas, water/wastewater and broadband could reach $1.3 billion over just four months.
“This utility data taken together with the unemployment statistics underscore the severity of the crisis and the need to extend and strengthen the Governor’s Order prohibiting utility shutoffs,” said Al Ripley, Director of Housing, Consumer and Energy Affairs at the NC Justice Center. “If the moratorium is not extended, we will see a dramatically increased threat to the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina.”
Specifically, the groups request that the governor extend the moratorium for another 60 days, or until the state health emergency is lifted, whichever is later. They also call on him to:
- Require the immediate reconnection of households still without essential utility services;
- Provide emergency water to households that still haven’t had their water service restored;
- Extend the debt repayment period utilities are required to offer to a minimum of 12 months, versus the current 6-month timeframe, and ensure that all customers in arrears whenever the shutoff moratorium expires are eligible for these repayment plans;
- Place additional restrictions on disconnections and fees imposed for violations of those repayment agreements, as well as restrictions on other harmful collections practices;
- Require additional data reporting by utilities in order to better gauge the statewide impact and inform future policy decisions;
- Restore weekly data reporting requirements for utilities, rather than monthly reporting;
- Implement standardized requirements for utilities to notify their customers of the provisions of the order.
“Governor Cooper has been a steady hand of leadership, taking swift action to protect North Carolinians during the immediate public health crisis. We know that Covid-19 won’t disappear entirely any time soon and that economic recovery may take longer than we originally hoped – it’s now incumbent upon the state to maintain and expand the governor’s protections to ensure every household has access to water and power. Hand-washing literally saves lives. We can’t let anyone’s tap run dry – or remain disconnected,” said Luis Martinez, Senior Attorney and Director of Southeast Energy at NRDC.
The groups also call on the governor to explore using existing sources of funding to help cover the growing utility bill debt for low-income households and help the state’s smaller utilities maintain financial stability. And they urge the Cooper administration to advance long-term policy solutions that address the underlying economic insecurity millions of North Carolina households faced even before the crisis.
“This crisis has exposed hundreds of thousands of households in North Carolina to unaffordable electric bills that were already a reality for millions of families across the Carolinas,” Vote Solar Regulatory Manager Tyler Fitch said. “Clean energy technologies like energy efficiency, smart water heaters and solar-plus-storage can reduce those burdens. The governor has an opportunity here to rebuild a North Carolina energy economy that is more resilient and more affordable for everyone who calls North Carolina home.”
The utilities’ self-reported data, which the groups analyzed, is available on the website of the North Carolina Utilities Commission here. The groups’ analysis reflects the latest data, released last Friday.