Indiana utilities have cut power to Hoosier households nearly 265,000 times in the past two years, according to a new report released this week. It is the third of all states in the country, according to available data.
the study — produced by advocacy groups Bailout Monitoring and the Center for Biological Diversity — showed that utilities have reaped billions in pandemic aid and revenue while disconnecting an estimated 3.6 million American homes.
Disconnections across the country increased 79% from 2020 to 2021 as state-level moratoria on power outages to protect customers during the pandemic expired.
Such an alarming rate of disconnections, coupled with soaring energy prices resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has thrown many residential utility customers into crisis, especially those with low incomes.
“We’re not at all surprised by Indiana’s rankings,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the consumer advocacy group. Citizen Action Coalition. “We have an administration, a (utility regulatory) commission and a legislature that, at a minimum, are indifferent to the plight of Hoosier’s daily taxpayer and, at worst, simply don’t care.”
Five states account for about 70% of the more than 3.5 million disconnections, according to the report’s analysis: Florida had the most disconnections, followed by Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois .
Disconnection figures only represent 33 states and Washington, DC, because data does not need to be made public in every state. The Indiana data cited in the report would also not have been available under normal circumstances.
Neither Indiana Utilities Regulatory Commission rules nor state laws require utilities to report this information. But the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic led the state commission to open an investigation.
The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, the state’s consumer protection agency, commissioned the survey in May 2020 to examine the impacts of the pandemic. As a result, major state utilities reported disconnection data on a monthly basis covering the past two years.
That survey “has been closed for some time,” however, and utilities are no longer required to report the data, OUCC spokesman Anthony Swinger said.
2020 Utility Shutdown Moratorium
To help consumers during the pandemic, Indiana leaders implemented a moratorium on utility disconnections early on. But the state left this ban expires August 2020when over 300,000 Hoosiers were two or more months behind on their bills.
Indiana utilities were then ordered to offer extended payment plans to help customers, but that the requirement expired only two months later in October 2020.
State consumer advocates, as well as the groups behind the report, said they feared the sudden return of public service cuts — and that the fear “came to fruition,” according to the report.
The Indiana Energy Association, a trade group for state utilities, said the report was “misleading and not credible.” Executive Director Danielle McGrath said that was because data was missing from 17 states and also did not provide a “full picture” of the steps energy providers and states have taken to help customers during the pandemic.
AES Indiana, formerly Indianapolis Power & Light, had about 37,000 disconnections in 2020 and more than 75,000 last year. He said the increase in disconnections last year was largely due to steps taken to help customers during and after the disconnection moratorium.
During the pandemic, AES Indiana temporarily offered customers 12-month payment terms, which was significantly longer than the three- and four-month plans previously offered. After the moratorium, AES Indiana permanently extended its payment terms to six months.
“This caused disconnects for non-payment that would otherwise have occurred in 2020 to move into 2021,” said AES Indiana spokeswoman Kelly Young. As the number of disconnections has increased, the number of reconnections has also increased, she added.
AES Indiana said it remains a priority for the company to work with customers to alleviate their financial hardship.
Duke Energy Disconnects
Duke Energy cut power service about 70,000 times in 2020 and 2021, the report said. In comments provided to IndyStar, Duke echoed that it felt the report was misleading and said it had “gone above and beyond to help customers who were struggling to pay their utility bills”. due to the pandemic.
Company spokeswoman McKenzie Barsknecht said disconnecting service is always a last resort and that customers are “the foundation of everything we do.” She added that of Indiana customers who have fallen behind on their bills in recent years, more than 95% have taken action to avoid a shutdown.
‘Hall of Shame’ utility
Duke and AES Indiana are among 12 utilities that have landed in this the report dubs the Hall of Shame. The dozen companies that have seen tens of thousands of disconnections have seen revenue, shareholder payouts and executive pay rise by the billions.
Using the average monthly U.S. residential electricity bill of $106 as an estimate of a customer’s unpaid bill, the cost to prevent disconnections for those 12 utilities would have been $336 million, according to the report. This represents only 18% of the amount of increased shareholder dividends during the pandemic.
Rising cost of energy in Indiana
Indiana’s energy costs were once among the lowest in the country, but they are now in the middle of the pack.
“The issue of affordability is not just limited to low-income households and will need to be resolved in the cases that will continue to come before the Board,” said the OUCC’s Swinger.
He said his agency would welcome additional data to help inform a broader conversation about bill affordability. However, any such decision requiring additional reporting would have to come from the Regulatory Commission or a policy decision from the General Assembly.
Addressing the issue in the legislature
Bills introduced in the state legislature to begin addressing the affordability of public services are being ignored, Olson said with the Citizens Action Coalition, and ideas presented to the IRC “are met with hostility.”
He said the conversations taking place regarding the affordability of energy utilities are focused only on large industrial and manufacturing customers, many of which Indiana has.
“It’s as if affordability and access to essential services are only about economic development,” Olson said, “and not the day-to-day struggles of Hoosier households struggling to survive on a daily basis.”
The new report is just one more example, Olson said, that the state needs to do more. He said the CAC “loudly renews its call” for Governor Eric Holcomb to create a utility affordability task force to begin “meaningful dialogue about how to keep every Hoosier home connected to these essential services.” .“
AES Indiana said it supports the creation of such a task force as well as other efforts to help the Hoosiers stay comfortable and safe at home. Duke Energy did not respond to questions from IndyStar about the task force.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email [email protected]star.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar environmental journalists: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
The IndyStar Environmental Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.