Floridians rack up an estimated $335 million in unpaid utility bills. What should we do?

by | May 14, 2020

Florida residents are racking up some hefty utility bills during the coronavirus lockdown. In addition to the obvious spikes in home electricity and water usage, people are also gulping down gigabites of internet data, too, and in many cases, wracking up data overages. But the most pressing need, electricity and water, could soon become a crisis for millions as some utility companies move to collect past-due bills.

Since mid-March, nearly 30 million U.S. households have lost their jobs, and over 30 percent of households were not able to pay their rent in April, all due to the economic disruption caused by panic over the virus. With Florida’s tourism-heavy economy, our state is a similar situation.

Governor Ron DeSantis working to reopen Florida’s economy and get people back to work, but even the most optimistic outlook envisions many millions of people spending more time in their homes during the hot summer months ahead. Utility bills will obviously be higher than normal, while paychecks, on average, will be lower.

Vote Solar, a non-partisan group that promotes increased solar capacity across the country, issued a report that found over 1.4 million households in Florida could be impacted with higher energy costs. With average household utility debt of $297, which includes electricity, gas, water, wastewater, broadband, per month, Floridians may have already racked up about $335 million in unpaid utility bills.

Utility companies cannot foot the bill for energy, water and data indefinitely, and millions of households have no way to pay some of those bills in the near term. Both sides need a fair solution to the problem.

“This public health crisis has exposed an ongoing issue of unaffordable utility bills for many Floridians,” said Katie Chiles Ottenweller, Southeast Director at Vote Solar. “At the very least, no one should have their utilities shut off during a crisis. But we need to take an even deeper look at the causes of high utility bills and develop solutions that will address the root issue. Ramping up investments in solar technology is one way we can help lower costs for everyone.”

Vote Solar’s report offered several policy recommendations that lawmakers could adopt:

  • A temporary halt on utility disconnections. While this is already effectively in place because most utility companies are voluntarily doing it, there are some smaller municipal utility providers that have resumed disconnects. Governor DeSantis should issue an executive order saying that utilities should not disconnect services, at least for a while longer.
  • Utilities should embrace data reporting standards on disconnections and utility debt to ensure policymakers have the information they need to make informed decisions. During this crisis, it’s important that lawmakers and officials are able to compare apples to apples.
  • Utilities that have not already done so should eliminate late fees and negative credit reporting for customers who are behind on their bills during the crisis. Many have already done this, but some of the smaller utilities have not.
  • Energy utilities should also look for ways to reduce customer bills – either through energy efficiency programs or efforts to educate people on reducing their energy usage, similar to the joint project of VoteSolar and FPL, announced in mid-March.
  • Vote Solar also suggests that policymakers and utility companies should devise a workable plan to allow late utility bills to be paid back over time. The governor could call on utilities to develop a plan. For example, debt management plans in Iowa set a timeline of a year or greater for utility customers to repay any accumulated balance.
  • In the longer term, VoteSolar recommends more investment in solutions that address the underlying factors that cause high utility bills, while providing sustainable jobs and healthy communities. Solar energy, they say, can play a key role, as Florida regulators have recently noted.

Solutions to the looming utility crisis have already started to gain traction in the U.S. Congress. The federal House Energy and Commerce Committee just proposed a bill (H.R. 6800, The Heroes Act) that would require that states and utilities receiving federal emergency funds must adopt or maintain policies that prevent both water and energy shutoffs for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. But the bill has a long way to go before it becomes law.

In the meantime, Florida’s leaders need to start taking some bold steps to address the crisis.

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