As the original expiration date has expired for most moratoriums on utility shut-offs for nonpayment, several companies within the oil and gas industry continue to support their customers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since March, NGI has reported on the efforts of more than 57 domestic and international corporations, foundations and utilities as they responded to the outbreak by implementing customer assistance programs or suspending disconnection for nonpayment.
Those efforts are continuing. In mid-July, Indianapolis Power & Light Co. (IPL) implemented another set of planned options to assist customers experiencing financial hardships because of the Covid-19 pandemic. IPL is offering flexible payment arrangements to its 470,000 residential customers.
Additionally, IPL added $75,000 to its Power of Change fund, through which eligible customers can receive one-time grant assistance. Nonetheless, all IPL customers with any unpaid, overdue account balance, according to the utility, are encouraged to prepare for standard billing processes and disconnections to resume over the next few weeks.
The AES Corp. subsidiary also made significant investments across numerous community organizations whose purposes vary from fulfilling basic needs to fighting systemic racism. IPL was a founding contributor to the Central Indiana Community Foundation’s Racial Equity Fund, which supports organizations that address issues of inequality.
Furthemore, IPL put $50,000 in donations toward Covid-19 food insecurity relief through Gleaners Food Bank and Second Helpings, and will continue to be a supporter of the food bank and its volunteer program.
IPL customers are able to check if they qualify for assistance programs such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for winter assistance funds, which was extended through July 31, and additional grants are available.
“I encourage all IPL customers to take advantage of our online payment features or call us directly so we can work together to develop a plan that meets their budget.”, said Lisa Kreuger, president of the U.S. business unit of AES Corp.
In March, Tulsa-based Williams pledged $1 million to provide community support focused primarily on emergency response, food insecurity, health and human services, and K-12 distance learning solutions for public schools.
To date, Williams has provided grants to about 80 nonprofit organizations, totaling roughly $400,000, according to a company spokesperson. The natural gas utility budgeted grant payments to first responders and health and human services organizations, including the Grand Valley Fire Protection District in Parachute, CO, the National Indian Education Association in the District of Columbia, the DeSoto Regional Health Foundation in Mansfield, LA, and the Moundsville Middle School in West Virginia.
Reliant Energy has also been working to help its communities experiencing economic crises. With the help of the Salvation Army, Reliant has been able to open cooling centers across Dallas, TX, to help the community stay protected against high heat exposure.
“As temperatures rise, heat-related illness becomes a real threat in our community, especially for our seniors and vulnerable residents who are also navigating hardship from the pandemic,” said Reliant President Elizabeth Killinger. “As part of our annual Beat the Heat program, Reliant is joining with The Salvation Army to provide safe spaces for our fellow Texans to combat the extreme heat. No matter what summer has in store, Reliant will be here to support our neighbors and the communities where we live and work,” Killinger continued.
The cooling centers, which are washed and sanitized between uses, also provide community members with bottles of water and portable fans. The Salvation Army of North Texas will also create emergency disaster feeding units (canteens) across the region.
Since mid-March, the Salvation Army of North Texas has provided 10,000 people with meals each week, in addition to housing 1,300 people per night. According to the organization, conditions in North Texas are only expected to increase the need.
“Unfortunately, the health and economic crises have been especially devastating for our vulnerable neighbors,” said the Salvation Army of North Texas’ Area Commander Major Todd Hawks. “The burdens for those experiencing poverty and homelessness have been immensely magnified by the pandemic, and we’re serving new individuals and families who’ve never needed assistance before.”
According to market research firm Escalent, consumer ratings of Covid-19 utility responses are high — a 7.2 on a 10-point scale. The rating is 8.2 among customers who were laid off during the pandemic.
The report, based on surveys from nearly 17,000 residential customers, explores the impact and effectiveness of the utility industry’s response to the global pandemic.
“Our research shows that utilities score measurably better when customers are aware of how utilities can help them with the impact of COVID-19,” said Escalent’s Chris Oberle, senior vice president. “The industry’s great response to the pandemic helped it achieve the highest level of customer trust and advocacy ever measured.
“The utility industry had no road map for managing the customer experience during a pandemic, but it engaged in efforts it believed would provide the most solace for its customers and employees,” Oberle added. “This new report explores the impact of these actions and summarizes best practices to prepare for and react to any potential crises in the future.”
Highlighted in Escalent’s report, TECO Peoples Gas and NiSource Inc. subsidiary Northern Indiana Public Service Co. received Covid-19 response ratings greater than eight. Nonetheless, only one in five general customers are aware of utility coronavirus relief efforts, according to the research. One in seven customers reported making a payment arrangement with their respective utility, and half of customers who are unable to pay their utility bills are likely to adopt a new billing option.
Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) voted to stay a portion of its June 26 order to extend the moratorium on utility residential customer disconnection and refusal of service for nonpayment until September 1.
“We continue to closely monitor Covid-19 and its impact on utility customers in Wisconsin. The data has shown that the coronavirus has ballooned since our discussion on June 11,” said PSC Chairman Rebecca Cameron Valcq.
“It is our obligation to strike a balance to ensure the financial health of utilities, but also ensure customer safeguards are in place. It is our role to provide clarity to utilities, but be nimble enough to press the pause button when it is in the public interest to do so. We must press the pause button today on utility disconnections as the risk to public health is far greater today than it was a month ago, while the financial impact to utilities has been minimal,” Valcq said.
Although the PSC provided customers an extension, the commission urged that customers seek a payment plan with their respective utilities or apply for energy assistance to avoid large debt and potential disconnection when the moratorium expires.
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