The Maryland Public Service Commission has ordered all gas and electric companies in the state not to cut off utility service to low-income customers this winter.
Rapidly rising energy prices, a colder than normal winter and computer glitches that delay state assistance have combined to cause many low-income users to fall behind on their bills.
Termination of service to such residential customers will cease until March 31, the end of the traditional heating season, yesterday's order said.
The PSC also told gas and electric companies to restore service to any low-income customers who had been terminated, and it made provisions for state funding to be applied retroactively to customer bills once applications are processed.
During the past month, callers have swamped the Office of the People's Counsel, the PSC and local charities looking for help with energy bills that have more than doubled in some cases. The order comes less than three weeks after the People's Counsel - the guardian of consumer rights in utility matters - filed a petition Jan. 23 requesting the moratorium.
But some utility spokesmen called the moratorium a bad idea and said they are considering an appeal.
"It just sends the wrong message to customers, who are already behind on their bills, to get further behind in their payments," said Nancy S. Moses, a spokeswoman for Potomac Electric Power Co.
"Knowing that they don't have to pay a bill doesn't give them any price signals to conserve, and that just runs up the balance due.
"It has a chilling effect on payments and on the budgets of low-income customers," Moses said. "This order isn't a surprise; it's just not pleasant."
The order takes effect immediately, but any of the utilities can request a stay. If the commission grants one, the utility would have 30 days to file a request for reconsideration with the PSC or appeal to the Circuit Court.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said it is studying the order, which was released late yesterday.
"Our policy in the past has always been to comply with the PSC," said Brenda Pettigrew, a BGE spokeswoman. "We'll continue to abide by the rulings. But everybody is still reviewing the order, and then we'll determine what our course of action will be."
Some utilities, like Pepco and BGE, have self-imposed rules that prevent service terminations during winter months. Many say they have exercised more restraint in terminating customers this winter, but the PSC order makes such policies mandatory.
The exact number of terminations statewide is unclear, but at a PSC hearing in January, about 1,200 customers were reported to have lost service in BGE's territory. BGE said only 67 were low-income customers and all but 15 were promptly reconnected.
At the same hearing, Pepco reported that it had disconnected 285 customers and restored service to about 40 of them.
"We were getting many calls," said Paula Carmody, assistant people's counsel. "We have one person who is our consumer liaison. ... She estimated she was getting 15 to 20 calls a day. We're also in touch with a lot of local agencies, and those offices told us they've been swamped with phone calls, requests for assistance and requests for the status of their applications to get assistance. It's become a big problem."
That problem can be attributed to three major factors:
The Maryland Department of Human Resources Office of Home Energy Programs reported "significant difficulties in processing applications" for two energy assistance programs that help low-income customers - defined as customers with annual incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
For example, eligibility for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) ranges from $12,528 a year for a single person to $34,272 for a family of six.
Demand for assistance in paying energy bills this year has been high. Enrollment in MEAP is expected to grow from just over 60,000 last year to 70,000 this year, said Sandra E. Brown, director of the state Office of Home Energy Programs. MEAP has $31 million in federal money this year for the program.
The state government also expects 90,000 to participate in the new Electric Universal Service Program, a $34 million fund designed to help low-income customers pay their electric bills.
Computer glitches have slowed the process considerably, PSC officials said. Of 47,000 applications for assistance, only 31 percent have been approved since Jan. 17.
"People are coming in to apply for assistance that weren't there last year," said Mark Wolfe, director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. He said states across the country are seeing a vast increase in applications for assistance with energy bills: "We're getting this deluge and we need the cooperation of utilities."
Temperatures have been 10 percent to 20 percent colder than normal. That has increased electricity and gas consumption nationwide.