PHOENIX — With summerlike heat already here and triple-digit temperatures around the corner, Arizonans are cranking up the air-conditioning in April. As electricity use increases, some Arizona residents who struggle to pay their power bill risk being disconnected.
Last week, the Arizona Corporation Commission took further steps to avoid a tragedy like the one that befell 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman of Sun City West, who died from environmental heat exposure and cardiovascular disease in September 2018 after her power was disconnected by Arizona Public Service. Pullman owed $51 on her bill, Phoenix New Times reported.
Her death prompted the five-member commission – which oversees public utilities in the state – to enact an emergency moratorium in 2019 barring public utilities from disconnecting customers who were late on their bills from June 1 through Oct. 15. When the pandemic struck, Arizona’s regulated utility companies extended suspensions and disconnections for nonpayment through the end of 2020.
On April 14, two years after the emergency moratorium was put in place, the commission voted 3-2 to preliminarily approve a package of measures regulating when utilities can shut off service for nonpayment. Commissioners Lea Márquez Peterson, a Republican, joined Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Anna Tovar to vote yes, while the two Republican commissioners Jim O’Connor and Justin Olson voted no.
Olson said Thursday he didn’t support the measures because they will “lead to an extensive moratorium” and “a substantial amount of the year would be excluded during that temperature threshold.”
“My concern is that we unintentionally create policies that drive up rates for ratepayers and in addition to that, we unintentionally make policies that result in an enticement for folks to build up large amounts of delinquent accounts that they cannot get out from under,” he said.
The proposals give utility companies the choice between a blanket moratorium from June 1 through Oct. 15 or a temperature-based threshold that prohibits shutoffs on days when temperatures reach 95 degrees.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to ban disconnections for customers who owe less than $300 for electricity and $100 for natural gas and unanimously approved an increase in solar projects for low-income multifamily housing.
After public comment, the commission will vote to revise or finalize the rules next year, and they would take effect by summer 2022.
Before 2019, Arizona utility companies relied on National Weather Service advisories to determine whether service shutoffs were permitted.
At the April 14 meeting, Kennedy argued that a 95-degree threshold was too high and would lead to more heat-related deaths.
“The real question is do we really want to have the blood of those individuals who die on our hands?” she asked. “Do the utility companies want to have the blood of those individuals who die on their hands?”
Kennedy said a 90-degree threshold would be a safer option and called it a “life or death” decision.
The commission also voted to move forward with policies that would ensure customers who are behind on their bills receive adequate notice before disconnection and are aware of available financial assistance. Customers will also get a phone call if they are going to be disconnected, and if the utility chooses, an in-person notification.
For community advocate Stacey Champion, these discussions should have come long before Stephanie Pullman’s death more than two years ago.
“I knew that people were dying in their homes, and I told the people who have the power to do something to stop that that people were dying in their homes,” Champion said. “And no one really listened to me until there was a specific story of a woman who had died.”
In an email, APS spokeswoman Jill Hanks said, “What’s important for people to know is that APS is here to help our customers, providing flexible options to those who may be struggling with their bills to avoid ever being at risk for disconnection.”
For those who are unable or struggling to pay their utility bills, APS offers crisis bill assistance and energy support program options such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Project Share.
Hanks encouraged customers to contact APS through their care center or aps.com for more questions about support and resources.
David Hondula, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Climate Research Center, believes the commission’s move is a step in the right direction.
“I think we’re simply seeing attention turned to a topic that was probably overdue,” he said. “Even in the absence of climate change, this is a hot place, we should be thinking about what the appropriate protections are for people, for public health and for accumulating large bills across a wide range.”
The National Weather Service reported that 2020 had the driest and hottest summer monsoon season since recordings began in Phoenix in 1895. For Arizona, the year ended as the second hottest on record.
In 2018, the NWS also reported the average maximum temperatures in the months of May through September reached above 95 degrees. 2018 ended up being the seventh warmest year recorded in central Arizona (Phoenix), and the eighth warmest recorded for southwestern Arizona (Yuma).
During the April 14 meeting, Commissioner Anna Tovar said “each utility company shall propose and implement one or more programs targeting heat-vulnerable populations to address heat-related safety concerns” in regard to the flexibility of how utilities can participate with relief for heat-vulnerable customers.
Although for some utility companies and cooperatives, this vote may not affect the way they run. The commission does not oversee the Salt River Project, for instance.
David Lock, chief executive officer of Grand Canyon State Electric Cooperative Association, said the current votes in question will not affect them because they choose their own rules. The companies within the cooperative are locally controlled, he said, and therefore are tighter knit and “in tune with what is happening in the community.”
“They know if they make a decision that’s going to hurt somebody, they’ll hear about it in the grocery store, when they go to church or at the little league game,” Lock said. “They’re all there in the same general vicinity.”
The rulemaking is likely to be completed in time to take effect in summer 2022. In the meantime, APS and Tucson Electric Power are not allowed to turn power off for customers from June 1 to Oct. 15.
Champion agrees the commission is moving forward in a positive direction, but she believes more can be done.
“Our goal should be that nobody dies. Nobody should face death in their own home,” she said. “These are preventable deaths, so I am going to keep pushing for that.”
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