PUCO orders utilities to delay disconnecting customers applying for energy assistance

Order comes after Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, legal aid groups ask for suspended disconnections

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio on Wednesday ordered the state’s investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities to temporarily not disconnect customers for nonpayment if that customer was in the process of applying for energy assistance programs.

In a release, PUCO said that utilities will be prohibited from disconnecting customers for nonpayment for 30 days after the customer applied for Winter and Summer Crisis programs, Home Energy Assistance Programs or the Percentage of Income Payment Plan.

This order came after the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, along with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, the Ohio Poverty Law Center, and Pro Seniors, Inc. asked PUCO to suspend disconnections for “at-risk consumers” who faced delays in processing their energy assistance applications.

In the June 5 filing, the agencies said that Ohioans have been facing “soaring energy prices, inflation and recovery from a pandemic,” and pointed to testimony from Community Action Agencies, which provide energy assistance, that they are falling behind processing applications due to limited staff and resources.

“Delays in energy financial assistance are an emergency for Ohio’s most vulnerable utility consumers, the filing said. “Accordingly, disconnections of utility services should be suspended for consumers experiencing delays in financial energy assistance, for any delays now or in the future.”

“We are pleased to see today’s PUCO ruling that grants a request by the Consumers’ Counsel and Legal Aid groups to protect at-risk Ohioans from unfair utility disconnections,” Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston said, adding, “The ruling will give low-income Ohioans a critical protection from utility disconnections while they await processing of their financial assistance.”

The commission said that this order is in addition to existing consumer protections around nonpayment disconnections, such as a 14-day notice before disconnection, the ability to get medical certifications to retain or restore service for 30 days and protection from the power being disconnected if the customer has filed a complaint with PUCO in a “bona fide dispute” over their bill.

PUCO also said that later this summer it expects to issue its annual “special reconnect order,” which allows people who are disconnected or threatened with disconnection to pay up to $175 to have service restored or maintained once per winter heating season, usually mid-October through mid-April.

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