The Texas Public Utility Commission voted Thursday to ban utilities from cutting off power and water services to Texans who have lost jobs and income during the COVID-19 crisis for at least the next six months.
But while it provides immediate relief to Texans worried about keeping their lights on and taps running as they face layoffs and blunted incomes, the order that the three-member commission approved unanimously does not provide direct assistance to utility customers, who will still be on the hook for their bills.
It also does not bar shut-offs on commercial accounts, which industry groups said could be a death sentence for small businesses, including restaurants.
The order does, however, provide electricity providers with millions of dollars in interest-free loans and reimbursements, paid for by ratepayers, which regulators said was necessary to avert a spate of private utility bankruptcies, which could lead to a major collapse of the competitive retail marketplace that spans most of the state.
Commission Chairman DeAnn T. Walker filed the proposed order earlier this week.
It will place a moratorium on shut-offs of utilities for nonpayment by the mostly private companies it regulates — a step the commission has enacted only rarely after weather events such as Hurricane Harvey — and also will require utilities to put customers on deferred payment plans upon request. Those utilities serve more than 6 million households in parts of the state with a deregulated electric market, a large area that includes Dallas and Houston.
A key component of the so-called “COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program” is the resurrection of a fee to create a fund that utilities could tap to cover what they expect to be massive revenue losses from unpaid bills.
The tariff, which the commission set at 33 cents per megawatt hour, is reminiscent of one that had been charged to ratepayers to fund a program the Texas Legislature killed off four years ago called Lite Up Texas, which helped some 700,000 low-income residents pay their electricity bills.