The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the interconnected nature of the U.S. utility industry and the need for further public investment to aid companies and consumers during the public health crisis, utility-sector executives said July 20.
"Some utilities are going to see drastic changes in their demographics, and we are going to see metered customers who aren't going to be metered anymore because they're not in business," Rob Powelson, president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies, said during an annual gathering of state regulators.
The event, hosted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC, was held virtually for the first time as the number of new coronavirus cases continues to mount across much of the U.S.
NARUC's annual summer policy summit comes as the U.S. Senate weighs a bill introduced by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in June that would encourage, but not require, a nationwide moratorium on electricity and gas shutoffs for the duration of the public health emergency.
NARUC President Brandon Presley pushed back on that idea during the summit's opening general session. "We think moratoriums should be at the state level and controlled by state resources," Presley said. Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn noted during the session that the trade group's investor-owned utilities agreed to a nationwide suspension of power disconnects in late March without any congressional intervention.
Presley nevertheless added that NARUC's members support additional federal assistance for lighting and heating bills. In May, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released $900 million in low-income home energy assistance funds appropriated by lawmakers as part of a roughly $2 trillion emergency economic aid package. But Presley said utilities will need far more than that in the months ahead.
"We're talking billions of dollars of need in terms of being able to serve the customers that really are going to be under hardship," Presley said.
That point was echoed by David Springe, executive director of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates. "I think that we still all need to hold hands and go to the federal government and get money," Springe said.
House Democrats included $100 billion in short- and medium-term assistance for rent and rent-related costs such as tenant-paid utility bills in a $3 trillion virus response package passed in May. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has indicated the upper chamber plans to introduce a slimmer bill that prioritizes liability protections for businesses before Congress adjourns for summer recess.
In addition to more federal assistance, Springe said many utility customers will likely need creative rate structures to weather the pandemic.
"We're certainly going to have a very large population of residential customers, and I think our business customers and industrial customers, who are going to need new programs to keep them on," Springe said. He suggested that temporary income-based payment programs could be one solution.
Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the American Gas Association, also warned against complacency as states continue to reopen their economies in the face of spiking coronavirus cases. And Harbert stressed the need to shore up domestic supply chains for crucial material such as personal protective equipment.
"Everybody is getting a bit complacent. They want to go back to normal, but we can't afford any percentage of our workforce to come down with COVID," Harbert said. "We don't want to find ourselves in August in hurricane season when … we don't have what we need."