The Public Utility Commission of Texas has adopted changes to the Electricity Relief Program, which provides certain reimbursements to retail electric providers for customers who cannot be disconnected for non-payment, consistent with the proposed revisions from Chairman DeAnn T. Walker which had been first reported by EnergyChoiceMatters.com yesterday
In brief, REPs will be reimbursed for energy charges at a rate of $0.04/kWh for customers in the program, and delivery charges (except securitization charges) will not be charged to REPs. Customer eligibility was discussed in our prior story linked above and has not been changed
A final order was not available as of publication time. But aside from a clarification on the effective date discussed below, and a change unrelated to REP operations on potential ERP funding from grants, the PUC adopted the language from Walker's April 16 memo as final, which is what is quoted below. This story will be updated with a link to a final order once posted.
Walker's memo notes that the ERP became effective on March 26, 2020
Walker's memo filed on April 16 had therefore proposed that the ERP, "is applicable to invoices received from the transmission and distribution utility (TDU) by the Retail Electric Provider (REP) and electric bills issued to eligible residential customers after that date."
The PUC agreed with a further revision to this language proposed by Commissioner Shelly Botkin such that the ERP will apply to bills issued "on or after" March 26, 2020, rather than just "after" such date
The ERP, "does not apply to invoices or electric bills received prior to the effective date of the program," according to language to be adopted, as the PUC otherwise agreed with Walker's memo
Walker said during the open meeting that, if the customer receives a bill on April 1, it is understood that the usage covered under such bill will include a period prior to March 26, and Walker said that such customers, if they are otherwise eligible for the ERP, may be placed in the ERP (provided the customer has been offered a deferred payment plan as discussed below)
Under the language in Walker's memo that was adopted by the Commission, "The COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program financial assistance is forward-looking and will begin for each customer at the time that the customer would otherwise be subject to disconnection for non-payment, absent the Program. To provide for consistent implementation, when a REP submits a request to suppress TDU charges, the TDU will reissue the most recent TDU invoice with the charges suppressed. Only one invoice may be reissued. Following the suppression request, future TDU invoices to the REP will have delivery charges suppressed."
The language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC states that, "REPs must contact residential customers to attempt to place the customer on deferred payment plans before submitting any claims for financial assistance from the program."
During the open meeting, Walker criticized instances, based on complaints to the PUC, in which REPs have refused to extend a deferred payment plan (DPP) to customers who have requested one
Walker also criticized REPs for reported instances in which customers have called REPs for payment assistance, and have been put hold on by REPs for three hours, and unable to get through to discuss payment arrangements, resulting in the customer being disconnected for non-payment. Walker suggested that REPs implement a 'call back' technology that allows customers who can't be immediately routed to a customer service representative to elect to receive a call back from the REP in place of the need to remain on hold.
In the memo, Walker noted that the Commission has issued an order under 16 Texas Administrative Code (TAC) §§ 25.480(j)(l)(B) and 25.498(i)(1)(B) requiring REPs to offer deferred payment plans to customers who have experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19. As provided by those rules, REPs may implement switch-holds for customers who enter into a deferred payment plan.
"When a customer contacts a REP and indicates an inability to pay a bill, or to make a deferred payment plan installment, the REP will inform the customer of the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program and will provide instructions for the customer to contact the Low-Income List Administrator (LILA) to self-enroll if the customer is experiencing unemployment due to the impacts of COVID-19," Walker's memo whose language was adopted by the PUC states
Walker's memo whose language was adopted by the PUC states that, "A REP must make meaningful attempts to offer the customer a deferred payment plan. A meaningful attempt to offer a customer a deferred payment plan does not include mass electronic communications to the REP's customers. A REP must demonstrate that it has made these customer specific attempts prior to qualifying the customer to receive financial assistance."
"If a customer enters into a deferred payment plan, the REP must allow the customer an opportunity to fulfill the terms of the plan prior to qualifying the customer to receive financial assistance," according to the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC
As before, financial assistance under the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program is a single benefit that consists of two components: (1) the suppression of delivery charges by the TDU and (2) an energy charge reimbursement of $0.04 per kWh to the REP on behalf of the customer.
As proposed by Walker, the PUC adopted a new end date of July 17, 2020 for the program
"The COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program, including the suspension of disconnections for non-payment and addition of eligible residential customers to the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program, will end on July 17, 2020, unless extended by the Commission. The COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program may be extended for an additional period if, after a reassessment of the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program, the Commission determines that the need for the program continues to exist," according to the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC
Per the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC, the TDUs' riders will remain in place and reimbursements to the TDUs and REPs will continue after the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program has ended to complete any remaining COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program cost recovery and to disburse all reimbursement amounts or remaining balances.
According to the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC, final claims for reimbursement must be submitted to TDUs not later than 90 days after the end of the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program.
"For any amounts recovered under the [funding] rider that remain after the end of the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program, the TDUs will issue a refund through REPs to end-use customers in the same manner the rider was charged. REPs must pass through any monies refunded to customers," according to the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC
Concerning REP reimbursements, the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC requires that, "Concurrent with each request for energy charge reimbursement, a REP must file with the Commission a sworn statement from an executive officer of the REP attesting to the accuracy, in all material respects, of the information provided to the TDU in the requests for delivery charges to be suppressed and energy charge reimbursements. The Commission may request additional reporting from REPs during the program."
According to the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC, REPs must reflect reimbursement sought through the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program on the affected customer's account and cease to seek continued collection where funds are received from the program during the pendency of the program.
"REPs are allowed to recover the remaining balances from the qualified residential customer after the cessation of the program," according to the language in Walker's memo adopted by the PUC
Under the language in Walker's memo concerning the ERP adopted by the PUC, the Commission waives all relevant deadlines within its rules related to required changes to the REP's Terms of Service, Prepaid Disclosure Statement, and Electricity Facts Labels contract documents relevant to the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program.
The PUC further modified a prior exception applying to the rule that, absent the exception, normally allows REPs to charge late fees to residential customers, with the rule exception now specifically ending on May 15, 2020, unless further extended by the PUC in the future.
"I believe that the Commission should set an end date for the exceptions to the rules to provide certainty," Walker said in the April 16 memo. If the Commission needs to extend that date, then it can do so at the open meeting on May 14, 2020, Walker said in the April 16 memo. During today's open meeting, Walker said that, at this time, she doesn't see a reason for an extension beyond May 15, but the need may change due to changing conditions
After a discussion at the open meeting, the PUC maintained the application of the late fee rule exception to all residential customers.
Commissioner Arthur D'Andrea encouraged REPs to bring data concerning their experience with the late fee rule exception to the May 14 open meeting to aid in any consideration of a potential extension of the exception.
Walker said that if a REP's business model is premised on receiving late fee revenue from customers, "you've got a problem with your business model."