WASHINGTON – Millions of Americans who are still without power this fall because of last year’s devastating storms are not likely to get help this winter, despite a vow by President Donald Trump to protect consumers from paying for electricity utilities when the cost exceeds their income.
The new hurricane-focused emergency protocol – known as the 90/30 rule for the proportion of households expected to go hungry in 90 days or less – is designed to prevent utilities from charging families for energy when their income covers a certain level of costs.
The plan, aimed at making sure customers in need aren’t forced to disconnect services to pay for energy, has wide support among government regulators, consumer advocates and state and federal utility commissioners.
But no such order has been issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the issue appears dead for the next round of emergency plans the Trump administration is required to submit to the agency by Sept. 30.
The 90/30 rule, adopted in 2005, was last reviewed in February and an extension would be costly for utilities, according to FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur.
“We are very mindful of this issue,” LaFleur said in a speech last week. “It is the responsibility of the customer to pay any reasonable electricity bill, but when their income falls below a certain threshold, the utility may not require them to pay their bill in full so as to avoid shutting off the power.”
A spokesman for the commission said the priority for the 90/30 plan in the future is to “ensure reliability.”
The estimated number of households in the United States who will face extreme cold weather again this winter is as low as 50,000 and as high as 4 million, depending on where the forecast says they will be, according to the latest analysis by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
Not all the communities served by utilities will be at the higher risk, according to the analysis, but those who rely most heavily on utility payments are expected to be forced to cut off electricity once winter approaches.
The most vulnerable would be high-cost customers in small communities, whom FERC estimates would see 69 percent of their electricity cut off.
For large cities with at least 100,000 households, the risk is 50 percent.
Around Washington, where about 260,000 people are without power, for example, about 80,000 people are categorized as vulnerable. About 15,000 are considered of moderate risk.
The vast majority of households that are expected to need to cut off their electricity this winter – about 112,000 – live in high-cost areas. Those that would be threatened are mainly low-income families, and among them are about 30,000 elderly residents who live with some level of disability.