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COVID-19 Is Still Spreading. Should Florida Regulators Order Electric Utilities To Stop Disconnecting Overdue Accounts?

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
In Florida, more than a half million residential accounts for public utilities are past due, putting 1.25 million at risk of losing electricity.

An environmental law group wants the Florida Public Service Commission to issue an emergency order preventing electric utilities from shutting off overdue accounts.

In a petition filed Tuesday, Earthjustice argued that shutting off power during the COVID-19 pandemic creates unsafe living conditions. Cutting electricity in steamy Florida essentially forces people to move, the group said, violating an order from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention to suspend evictions until December.

“Florida law has recognized that cutting off electricity amounts to an eviction because of the necessity of electricity to safely live in Florida,” said Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall “What we're trying to do here is prevent an end-run around the CDC moratorium.”

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In March, when businesses were ordered to close as the disease spread, the state’s major utilities, including Florida Power & Light, suspended disconnections. As the pandemic has dragged on, more than 550,000 accounts have fallen past due, Marshall said. That’s left more than 1.25 million people at risk of losing power.

This month, some utilities resumed disconnections. On Sept. 11, FPL said it planned to begin cutting off power on Oct. 1 to customers with overdue accounts who do not make payment arrangements. It plans to shave $200 off overdue bills.

Duke Energy and Tampa Bay Electric have also resumed disconnections, Marshall said.

FPL did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the PSC has agreed to allow utilities to ask to recover costs by hiking rates, Marshall said relief should also be extended to customers. The petition does not include a request, but Marshall said at some point the state will need to deal with the backlog.

“Debt relief is certainly something that we're going to have to be thinking about in order to get a lot of these people back on track,” he said. “One of the people we're representing is over $2,000 behind on her electricity bill. And even on a bill repayment plan, she has no way of making that up.”

Across the U.S., 23 states still have moratoriums on disconnections in place, Marshall said. In Florida, utilities voluntarily suspended disconnection so no order was needed, Marshall said. If granted, the emergency order would prevent disconnections for 90 days.

That would give the state enough time to come up with a broader plan under a more permanent rule, Marshall said.

“We launch the emergency petition for emergency rule making action to stop the disconnections as soon as we can,” he said. “Then we can think about hitting the pause button and about how to deal with all those problems that are still going to exist and need a longer term solution.”