MPSC tackles next steps in customer protections as Michigan's economy cautiously reopens amid pandemic

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE   July 23, 2020

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Continuing its efforts to ensure appropriate assistance is available for Michigan’s energy and telecommunications customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Michigan Public Service Commission today reiterated the support available to help customers in need with bill payment assistance and flexibility payment terms and called on its staff, regulated energy companies and stakeholders to continue customer outreach, data collection, and program enhancements to provide adequate safeguards as Michigan’s economy cautiously reopens.

The Commission’s order today (Case No. U-20757) directs MPSC staff to continue to collaborate with energy and telecommunications providers as well as stakeholders on customer protection and affordability measures going forward as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer weighs how to reduce the spread of the virus. Staff reports are due later this year on the progress of these discussions and a framework for evaluating affordable payment plans. In addition, the Commission directs energy utilities to file reports on efforts to better align energy waste reduction programs with other assistance for low- and moderate-income households, with a Staff report to follow in February.  

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty and economic challenges for Michiganders and the state’s businesses while we work through the impacts of the coronavirus,” MPSC Chairman Sally Talberg said. “The Commission remains committed to ensuring adequate protections and assistance are available for struggling families during these difficult times.”  

Based on the Commission’s work with utilities amid the pandemic, 1,657 households that were shut off due to non-payment have had service restored as of July 9, and 1,899 households that were shutoff due to reasons other than non-payment also have been reconnected. With assistance programs, flexible payment plans and other help made available during the pandemic, most of Michigan’s investor-owned utilities, including the state’s two largest, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, were reporting declines in the number of customers who are behind on their utility bills.

The order directs regulated energy utilities to file reports with the MPSC detailing data on disconnected service to occupied and unoccupied residences in their territories, with data on unpaid utility bills, and to update these reports monthly in this docket until directed otherwise. The Commission also directed Staff to devise a revised template for utilities to report data going forward.

In addition, the Commission rejected utilities’ recommendations to define, track, or defer COVID-19 related expenses beyond the deferral of uncollectible expenses, or bad debt, at this time. Utilities seeking to pursue recovery or accounting treatment for additional expenses must include specific information to be filed by November 2, 2020, to be considered by the Commission. The Commission indicated it would not consider incremental costs in isolation of potential savings by utilities through reduced labor expenses, travel, and lower fuel and operational costs.  

Today’s order updates the MPSC’s ongoing efforts to address the impacts of the COVID crisis. The Commission has worked with energy providers and state and federal agencies to help coordinate and provide assistance to vulnerable customers across the state.

The MPSC urges customers facing COVID-related financial troubles to contact their utility right away to find out about available help options or call 211 or go to mi211.org for help. Utilities are promoting flexible payment plans and helping customers in financial difficulties find assistance available to low-income households. Assistance programs will vary by company.  

Federal relief funding significantly boosted the available financial assistance for struggling utility customers in Michigan. The state received $162 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds this fiscal year and was awarded an additional $35.1 million through the CARES Act federal pandemic stimulus. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shepherded $17.3 million in CARES Act LIHEAP funding to make direct payments on behalf of more than 40,000 Michigan households that owed past-due amounts to DTE Energy, Consumers Energy and SEMCO Energy. In addition, these three utilities forgave another 25% of past-due amounts on top of the CARES Act funding for these customers’ arrearages, amounting to more than $4.3 million. LIHEAP funding is still available for qualified customers needing assistance with their utility bills or propane costs.   

That funding is in addition to the annual Low-Income Energy Assistance Fund, which raises up to $50 million a year for the Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) through a surcharge on customer bills; the surcharge was set at 92 cents a month last year, and MEAP assisted more than 61,000 households in 2019.  In a separate case approved today, the monthly surcharge has been reduced to 91 cents, with the expectation that this level will continue to fully fund the $50 million for MEAP for 2020-21.    

To look up cases from today’s meeting, access the E-Dockets filing system here.   

To watch recordings of the MPSC’s meetings, click here.

For information about the MPSC, visit www.Michigan.gov/MPSC, sign up for one of its listservs, or follow the Commission on Twitter.

DISCLAIMER: This document was prepared to aid the public’s understanding of certain matters before the Commission and is not intended to modify, supplement, or be a substitute for the Commission’s orders. The Commission’s orders are the official action of the Commission.

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