The Citizens Utility Board of Michigan (CUB), a consumers advocacy group, says low-income gas and electric customers "are poised to experience a crisis of service like rarely seen before."
The group says there could be an unprecedented surge of people losing heat and electricity, after the state's moratorium banning utility shutoffs to low income customers ends on June 1st.
The risk of large-scale shutoffs could continue for a long time, according to CUB, due to the severe economic collapse because of the pandemic.
"We're going to have a lot of those unemployed people who weren't low income before who are now low income," said Robert Nelson, CUB President. Nelson says current programs to help low-income people catch up with past due balances from their utility company may not be sufficient during the coming crisis. "These bills are going to be enormous after this pandemic," he said. "They're going to be huge. People are going to be out of work, thousands of people will be begging for relief."
CUB is urging the Michigan Public Service Commission to closely track customer arrears after June 1st, and require utilities to forgive at least a portion of utility bill debt.
"For example, the commission could require that any arrearage amount over $200 for a household that was built up before the state’s shelter-in-place order ended must be forgiven," CUB's comments to the Commission in case U-20757 suggests.
The MPSC opened the case to monitor utilities' response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The state's regulated utilities say they are encouraging customers to reach out as soon as they realize they need help. Several programs currently exist to help low-income people pay utility bills, including the Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) and State Emergency Relief (SER) program.
Currently, those programs are funded with $50 million, which is distributed via grants to community assistance organizations across the state.
DTE Energy says it is encouraging people who are experiencing problems paying their bills to ask about a new program begun during the pandemic - the "Personalized Service Protection" plan. The utility says the plan offers "additional protections to help customers not only retain their service but also avoid growing a balance that will be difficult to repay. Some of the customized protections available to eligible customers include deposit waivers, payment extensions and flexible repayment options."
DTE also offers a two-year "Low Income Self Sufficiency" program, which helps customers pay down arrears with MEAP and SER funds, and creates an affordable monthly payment for eligible customers. Current enrollment in that program is 13,000.
Consumers Energy does offer a program for low-income customers that does involve an element of debt forgiveness. Also a two-year program, The Consumers Affordable Resource for Energy (CARE) program pays a portion of a qualified low-income customer's monthly bill, and gradually forgives any past due balances (under $4,000) as a reward for on-time payments.
Consumers say about 14,000 customers enrolled in CARE this year.
CUB says most of the current programs offered by the state or by utilities are only available to customers at 150% of the federal poverty level or below. The group says the MPSC should raise that income level to 200% of the federal poverty level.
CUB President Robert Nelson says the crisis caused by the pandemic is merely highlighting a reality that worsens every year - that energy bills have simply become permanently unaffordable for many people in Michigan.
"That's something we're going to have to reckon with in the years ahead," he said.
Editor's Note: Consumers Energy is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.