Puget Sound Energy to disconnect residents behind on payments, including vulnerable households 

Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission allowed PSE to shut off power for residents despite process aimed at protecting low-income households 

Posted

On May 28, 2024, Washington state’s largest utility Puget Sound Energy (PSE) announced a new plan to disconnect residential customers who have past-due gas and electricity bills, as stated in a press release. 

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission granted PSE's request to start the process of disconnecting the power of such customers. PSE requested the commission in August 2023 to break an existing agreement with anti-poverty and environmental justice groups.  

The commission approved the request and PSE can now resume sending disconnection notices to customers with 90-day or more past-due balances, gradually moving to customers owing at least $250.  

Community involvement on possible impact 

Some organizations prioritizing energy equity in the state include the Washington State Community Action Partnership (WSCAP), Washington State Community Action Partnership, Front and Centered, NW Energy Coalition, Sierra Club, and Washington Conservation Action. 

These organizations urged the commission to keep disconnection protection in place for customers in bill discount or bill assistance programs, customers in highly impacted or overburdened communities, and customers who declare a situation where disconnection would put their health or housing at risk.  

Research demonstrates that utility disconnections disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color households, even after controlling for income. Research also highlights the extreme consequences disconnections have on vulnerable and low-income customers, including not being able to afford other basic necessities like food and medicine or even being evicted from rental properties,” said Yochi Zakai, attorney at Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger LLP, who represents WSCAP’s The Energy Project in this case. “The Commission granted PSE’s request to break its disconnection protection agreement despite being presented with this research. 

Vulnerable customers include homebound and medically fragile seniors and families with small children.  

These vulnerable and low-income households, who are now at risk of losing access to power and heat, were previously protected from utility disconnections during and after the pandemic.  

“We are surprised and disappointed in the Commission’s order to allow shutting off essential services for vulnerable residents,” said Jeff DeLuca, Washington State Community Action Partnership Executive Director. “We’re talking about households facing serious poverty-related challenges. The Commission’s order turns a blind eye on energy justice and equity, despite state law’s direction to consider these factors when evaluating investor-owned utilities’ requests to change policies and practices.” 

Consumer advocates proposed alternatives to disconnections, instead, the commission only extended the amount of time customers are given to respond to past-due notices and required an additional communication step PSE must complete before disconnecting a customer.   

“In this case, PSE presented the Commission with a false narrative: that the only way to reduce unpaid utility bills is to threaten disconnection,” added Shaylee Stokes, director of The Energy Project, a WSCAP program. “Instead of resorting to punishing customers struggling to afford their bills, we need utilities to implement models that increase communications with residential customers behind on payments to help them take advantage of available financial assistance programs or get them into payment and budget plans. We have serious equity and public health concerns about using the threat of cutting off power as a primary tool for addressing late payments.” 

Past years 

In late 2022, PSE voluntarily agreed to only shut off the power of customers with past-due bills amounting to or more than $1,000, and not threaten disconnection to customers it knows are low-income.  

“By granting PSE's request to walk back its commitment and shut off power for customers who are behind on their utility bills, regardless of whether they are known to be low income and struggling, this commission missed an opportunity to act on equity rather than just talk about it,” said Mariel Thuraisingham, clean energy policy lead at Front and Centered, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that supports the needs and interests of low-income people living in Washington state. 

Comments

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  • HappyOlympian

    Good thing we let foreign interests own our power systems.

    Wednesday, June 5 Report this

  • FordPrefect

    I clicked the “research demonstrates” link and although I appreciate the attempt at a citation, this self-proclaimed research demonstrates nothing novel. It’s just an editorial piece where the author repeatedly asserts that various power companies are racist without providing any data. Just because you say a thing doesn't make it true.

    PSE actually has a discount program which cuts 5-45% from the bill depending on income and number of people living in the household. What you can’t do is pay nothing and expect the lights to stay on.

    Perhaps instead of crying racism where there is none, we could discuss why the price of power is increasing year over year. Inflation, reliance on weather-dependent sources of power, irrational fear of nuclear energy, the felling of forests to produce biomass fuel, dam removal initiatives, and fossil fuel plant closures all come to mind. Unfortunately we won’t get to have that conversation because it tends to make “Team Virtue” look stupid.

    Wednesday, June 5 Report this

  • Duffish

    Power companies need to comprehensively look at what the drivers are for them to provide clean energy to customers at a reasonable price. We have basked in the aura of cheap energy for decades here in the Northwest, now hydro is becoming less and less of an alternative as time goes by, expensive and, with climate change (a good portion of the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels), there is a need to rethink their model. I realize progress have been made but PSE will fight it, because of their profit margin.

    Another factor is the impact of energy on those communities that are mostly affected by the continually rising rates. On the one hand, we build low income shelters for people in need and PSE provides the power. Are they going to cut them off too, if they fall behind? And yes, you don't have to be a genius to understand which of our communities suffer the most. It sounds to me that the coalitions which are advocating for the needy have not been successful in working with PSE on this issue. If we, as citizens do not be advocates for clean energy, who will? Clean energy means more expensive energy for a time, but PSE has that obligation.

    Wednesday, June 5 Report this

  • OlyGuy

    There are ways to work with companies to pay your bills, you just need to be proactive. Seems society has gotten to a point that we accept people not taking care of their responsibilities and just chalk it up to "corporate greed" or "racist". I do think corporations are unchecked in a lot of ways, but that's beside the point. The "racist" dog whistle is just a cop out and easy way to shutdown further conversation. This is similar to paying for car registration and insurance. I noticed lots of vehicles without registration and even some without license plates that never seem to get pulled over or ticketed. I asked the OLY PD about it and they said the prosecutors and judges don't want to bother with it because it's a "poor tax". So I have to pay a bunch of money for registration and insurance, but others who simply don't just get to ride the system? There are things responsible adults need to do to live in a civil society, but seems we just have no appetite for holding anyone accountable for not following agreed upon social rules. Just virtue signal and cry racism or "poor tax" to shutdown conversation about consequences for actions.

    Wednesday, June 5 Report this

  • Boatyarddog

    Turning off power to Vulnerable Households?

    Your telling me they would cut power to those in need of O2 at home?

    Or this winter allowing grandmother and kids to freeze?

    Despite power cost rising, infrastructures that produced power in past times are not doing what they were supposed to do.

    Many Dams built to promote community power sources are no longer needed, and in many cases inhibit, our salmon runs, increase possibilities of bursting, especially those Dams that are failing are not Addressed.

    There are those that would like the readers here to believe that a race card is being played here, Hogwash!

    Watch what other subjects and comments are posted all thru this commenters eyes....

    The eyes of blame and unreasonable accounting of issues before All Washingtonians

    Yesterday at 11:10 AM Report this