HOUSTON - Since the Public Utility Commission lifted the ban on shutting off residential utilities for non-payment in June, there's been a surge in people losing power, and air conditioning, during these hot summer months.
The PUC of Texas banned shut-offs, first, when the pandemic began last year, then again after the Big Freeze in February. It lifted the last ban on June 18, just when our hot Houston summer began.
CenterPoint Energy, which transmits electricity to most Houston homes, filed a report with the PUC citing 103,568 residential disconnects for non-payment in July of 2021. Compare that to 77,705 in July of 2019, before the pandemic. That's a 33% increase from a backlog of overdue accounts.
"On average, we were seeing 100 per week, which is a significant jump compared to zero," said Desiree Davis, Director of the BakerRipley Utility Assistance Program.
100 calls a week started coming into BakerRipley, she said, from people at risk, or who had just had their power shut off. That's in addition to people already calling for help, behind on their bills.
"We're definitely seeing an increase in utility bills and the need continues to be great for families. For example, we just assisted a family with a bill over $6000," said Davis.
The program also helps repair A/C units.
"Our contractors complete an assessment for an inoperable unit that’s not working, and in some instances, provide a portable unit for them," she added.
Davis says she hears from families with disabled people, seniors, or children, worried about the possibility of heatstroke because they can't afford to cool their homes.
"Typically with our seniors, they actually, usually are afraid to run their AC’s lower because of the affordability aspect," said Davis.
Meantime, there is a relief for Griddy customers stuck with bills in the thousands of dollars from their variable rate plans during the February Freeze and power shortage.
"Right now, I owe Griddy, I'm negative $3171.37," said Griddy customer Meghan O'Neill during the crisis.
The Texas Attorney General reached a settlement stating Griddy customers with outstanding balances won't have to pay, and customers who already paid those high bills from the Freeze can file a legal claim for reimbursement in Griddy's chapter 11 bankruptcy case.
If you are behind on utility bills, you may qualify for utility assistance from a variety of programs:
- BakerRipley Utility Assistance Program
- West Houston Assistance MInistries
- Texas Rent Relief Program or, for homeowners, the Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program.
You'll find more information about the PUCT’s COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program and other financial assistance available to residential consumers at the Office of Public Utility Counsel’s COVID-19 Consumer Resource Center on their website.
Texas residents can call 211, the United Way Hotline for referrals to assistance programs
Customers can also seek assistance through the TXU Energy Aid, a national electricity bill-payment assistance program.
Electricity providers are also required to offer deferred payment plans to customers who ask for them