Utility customers who have fallen behind on their electricity and natural gas bills during the COVID-19 crisis could have their service cut off starting next month, even as advocates caution state regulators that many Georgians are still hurting financially during an economic crisis of historic proportions.
Several public utilities suspended those disconnections in March when the pandemic shut down much of the state’s economy. The state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, unanimously voted Tuesday to let Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light’s natural gas marketers resume service cut-offs for most customers.
Some leeway will still be granted for Georgians who are considered medically fragile – such as those who have chronic lung disease – should the governor extend his shelter-in-place order. That order is currently set to expire June 12.
Natural gas companies will start back disconnecting service on July 1. Georgia Power will begin on July 15. Customers unable to pay have until then to request a payment plan, and both Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light have said they will work customers with past due amounts.
“If the governor subsequently extends the shelter-in-place order for this group past the moratorium end date, then staff would recommend that for these customers only a limited moratorium continue until the new shelter-in-place order ends or until otherwise ordered by the commission,” said Robert Trokey, director of the PSC’s electric unit.
Customers who fall under the shelter-in-place order would still need to notify their service provider that they qualify for protection from service disconnections.
Groups like the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club and the Partnership for Southern Equity, which advocates for racial equity across the South, argued to commissioners that more time is needed for people to recovery financially, particularly with the hot summer months quickly approaching.
The state has seen record unemployment since the novel coronavirus brought the state’s economy to halt, with many businesses closed and an historic number of Georgians suddenly out of a job.
Chandra Farley, the partnership’s just energy director, said Tuesday that she was troubled by how quickly the utilities wanted to move to resume the disconnections.
“We can’t rush into these decisions and leave people at the mercy of their electricity and/or gas meters during a global pandemic,” Farley said. “I hope that the PSC remains open and willing to work with the community and energy justice advocates on a plan that prioritizes people over utility monopoly profit.”
Farley said her organization is pushing for a national moratorium on utility shutoff and a six-month grace period following the end of the state of emergency. The ability to shut off service to households that miss payments is seen by providers as a key tool for preventing bad debt.