Advocates: Record number of New Yorkers are behind on utility bills
ALBANY — The number of people who are behind on their gas and electric bills is at the highest level since the Great Recession and the number is likely to go higher, according to data compiled by a leading consumer group.
This increase is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to widespread unemployment and also a shift in which residential customers are starting to consume proportionately more electricity and gas in their homes than in offices. This has prompted regulators to take a look at how they may have to manage utility costs going forward.
According to the Public Utility Law Project of New York, a consumer group, 1,067,749 residential customers were in arrears, or at least 60 days overdue on their gas or electric bills as of Aug. 20.
That’s a 20% increase since February, before the pandemic and attendant job losses, and higher than 1,047,923 in November 2008. And it represents an increase from $587 million owed in 2008 to $985 million in August.
“It’s more than we’ve had owed in at least the last decade,” said Richard Berkley, executive of PULP.
He added that the August numbers will likely rise as newer data will reflect the use of home air conditioners during the hottest part of summer.
With scores of New Yorkers working from home, they were likely to keep their air conditioners running on high rather than turning them down while they were away at work. People working at home would also consume more electricity to run their computers, lights and other electronics that would normally be off during the workday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently extended until next March 21 a moratorium on cutting off utilities for people who are badly behind on their bills. Moreover, Berkley said there are protections such as utility company policies that allow customers to make installment payments in order to catch up with old unpaid bills.
Still there are worries. The moratorium could be lifted if the other emergency measures surrounding the pandemic are lifted prior to that.
What may be the larger issue going forward though, is how the state’s highly complex and interconnected utility grid will deal with what could be a long-term or even permanent shift toward working at home, Berkley said.
With that in mind, Berkley’s group has requested and gotten what he described as a “COVID proceeding” or detailed look at this trend by the state’s Public Service Commission, which rules on rate increase requests and other matters regarding the power grid.
As it is now, businesses generally pay higher electricity rates than residential customers. But those costs can be offset by economic development and other grants.
But other questions, such as how power companies should allocate and deploy resources, may need a second look in light of the shift.
Should there be more crews, for instance, in suburban or rural areas as people stay in those locales?
“We’re only six months into this historic shift of usage from industrial locations to homes,” Berkley said.
“The whole model for what reliability looks like and what efficient spending looks like is going to be different,” he said.