AUSTIN, TX -- The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) adopted an emergency rule to suspend disconnection of electricity because of the intense summer heat.
The petition was submitted by Texas Ratepayers' Organization to Save Energy and Texas Legal Services Center and is supported by Consumers Union, AARP, and the Office of Public Utility Counsel. Under the emergency rule, regulated utilities may not disconnect electricity until after September 30, 2000. The utilities are also required to work with customers to set up a deferred payment plan.
According to Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of Texas ROSE, "At least 44 Texans have died because of the heat. This ban is necessary to protect people who are afraid to use their air conditioning for fear they won't be able to pay their bills next month."
Under the emergency rule utilities have to work with customers to set up affordable deferred payment plans. "Make partial payments while the ban is in effect," Biedrzycki advised. "Past due bills add up fast and will hit you all at one time when the ban is lifted."
The petition claims the PUC's rules don't go far enough to keep people safe in the Texas summer heat. This is the second time the PUC has adopted an emergency rule on disconnection in summer. The first was adopted on August 12, 1998.
Texas Legal Services Center executive director Randall Chapman said, "Our office works with legal aid programs throughout Texas helping represent their clients in utility law matters. Many clients have access to life saving air conditioning, but frequently won't use AC units for fear of high electric bills. The inability to pay one's electric bill is not a capital crime in Texas. No one should die out of fear of high electric bills. This measure represents a balanced plan to allow folks to use life saving air-conditioning. Customers will be guaranteed the protections and they will be allowed additional time to pay back the expense in the autumn when electric bills are lower."
The emergency rule passed today is mandatory for regulated utilities. Consumers served by city-owned utilities and electric cooperatives will benefit only if the utilities voluntarily comply with the disconnection ban.
Biedrzycki noted that she has received phone calls from devastated customers in Llano whose electric bills tripled this month because of higher than normal air conditioning use and an increase in fuel charges. There are more than 1 million customers of over 150 utilities who cannot appeal to the PUC. They must appeal to their city council or rural electric cooperative board. "Even though the PUC has no jurisdiction, the emergency action today should be sufficient proof to the cities and rural electric cooperatives that their customers must have the same protection," Biedrzycki said.
The Texas PUC is reviewing its rules designed to protect residential electric consumers. Biedrzycki and Chapman agree, "We should never again be put in a position of taking body counts to justify levelized billing plans for all electric service retailers. Just as northern states have disconnection bans in winter, Texas should adopt permanent rules to protect Texans from the deadly effects of scorching heat."