PhillyDeals: Peco getting quicker at shutting off power

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Philadelphia Inquirer - Philadelphia,PA,USA

Peco Energy Co. has been getting faster at shutting off power when people don't pay their electric bills.

Through May, Exelon Corp.'s Philadelphia service arm says it stopped electricity to around 34,000 customers for nonpayment, up from 16,000 in the first four months of last year.

Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia calls it "a big unannounced policy shift" that leaves thousands at risk.

Readers have told me they're not too sympathetic to people who don't pay what they owe.

But Peco agrees more customers can't afford its bills lately: "More than 66,000 Peco customers have received almost $28 million in [state-funded] LIHEAP assistance," compared with 41,000 grants totaling $11 million last year, spokeswoman Cathy Engle told me.

What else is different this year: Peco is enforcing its shutoff warning policy - two written warnings and two calls, over at least two months, after you're already a month late - against everyone, not just those furthest behind, as in earlier springs.

"Previously, when we had come out of the winter moratorium [that runs from December through March], we would go after the person who was most delinquent first," Engle said.

But "we realized that wasn't working," because people a little behind in spring would fall far behind by autumn. This way, Engle says, cut-off customers won't have to pay many months' unpaid bills to get power turned back on for the winter.

"We're going to be the same at the end of the year" as in 2008, when Peco shut off 54,603, Engle predicted. The utility reconnects about 63 percent of the people it shuts off after they pay what they owe.

I ran that by Stein's colleague Philip A. Bertocci, who represents Action Alliance of Senior Citizens and other low-income ratepayer groups against Peco in consumer cases before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

"That is not much consolation to the many financially challenged residential customers" who have been "deprived of essential service," Bertocci told me.

"As for whether Peco's explanations are just public relations crisis management" to disguise increased shutoffs, or a real strategy to reduce service cuts at the most dangerous time of year, "time will tell," Bertocci said. "Come September, we will be watching."

 

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