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Energy division asks: are power shutoffs in the offing amid a pandemic?

As unemployment has risen and incomes have dropped, utility bills are likely rising with the increased use of home computers. So what happens when these patterns converge? Alas, it means utility payments may be missed and Minnesotans threatened with loss of power, heat or water.

While the Commerce Department and Public Utilities Commission sent a letter to the state’s utilities on March 27 requesting that the protections of the state’s “cold weather rule” be extended for the duration of the national emergency and that utilities waive late fees and arrange payment plans for customers, such actions remain voluntary.

So are state residents losing their power during the COVID-19 crisis?

Not yet, according to an update from two who are following the issue. But, at Thursday morning’s House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division meeting, they cautioned that it’s early, and Minnesotans would benefit from state safeguards as months of economic uncertainty wear on.

“Overall, we’re not seeing widespread cases of customers falling behind on utility bills,” said Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. “But more than 30 other states have instituted temporary moratoriums on utility shutoff. While many utilities in Minnesota have waived late fees and arranged payment plans for customers, it is voluntary.

“I would argue that we could reasonably expect problems going forward. When the emergency is lifted, are we going to see a spike in shutoffs? Are customers going to have to pay their past due bills immediately? If we continue to head into a serious recession, we are likely to see more people facing shutoff.”

Levenson-Falk advocated for legislative action that would include increased funding for energy assistance, more transparency on the issue from cooperatives and municipal utilities that don’t have to report to the Public Utilities Commission, and separate attention for the 12% of Minnesota households that depend upon propane or other deliverable fuel.

Rep. Dave Baker (R-Willmar) said his experience has been that cooperatives and municipal utilities have been very responsive to customers’ needs.

“I hope we’re not out looking for problems that don’t exist,” he said. “I have visited with many of these co-ops and munis, and they were among the first to say that we will delay your bills. Don’t assume that, because they don’t have to report to the Public Utilities Commission, that they aren’t stepping up.”

Bill Grant is executive director of Minnesota Community Action Partnership, a group that helps administer energy assistance programs. He said applications for assistance have been running behind average for this time of year, thanks to a strong economy and a mild winter prior to COVID-19.

“But a somewhat greater concern has been with delivered fuel customers,” he said. “Some of those vendors have refused to fill tanks without cash on delivery. It’s still the heating season in northern Minnesota, where many use these fuels.

“A larger concern is what happens as the crisis deepens. We are expecting federal money, but many will struggle to stay current with their utility bills. The CARES Act passed on March 27. We haven’t seen that money yet. That’s an unconscionable amount of time to wait in an emergency. Every day that we wait is a day closer to running out of the money we have to serve Minnesotans.”

When asked by Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls) how long until the state’s energy assistance funds run out, Grant said, “We should be good if money arrives by June 1. After that, we begin to get in trouble.”


LED bill passes

In what is expected to be the division’s last official action of the session, it approved HF3230, a bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Boe (R-Chaska). The proposal would amend the state’s current efficient lighting program to strongly encourage the use of light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, rather than the “fluorescent and high-intensity discharge” lamps currently in statute.

The bill’s companion, SF3331, sponsored by Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound), awaits action by the full Senate.

Boe said fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, a potent neurotoxin, and the change would reduce mercury in the waste stream. He said Xcel Energy, the Pollution Control Agency and 87 counties support the bill.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) noted that mercury in the waste stream was an issue that Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls), the division chair, has been raising at the Legislature since the late 1980s.

He took the opportunity to point out that this would be the final scheduled hearing that Wagenius chairs in her 34-year legislative career. Before adjournment, he and other legislators praised her service and mentorship with Long presenting evidence that this was her 12,176th day as a legislator. In speaking of the many committees she’s chaired over the decades, he said, “You’ve had a tremendous legacy.”

Wagenius thanked the division members for their words and said of the current COVID crisis, “This has taught us not to ignore science.”

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