Winter without utility service

This page features two reports about Pennsylvania homes heading into winter without central heat, as well as some bonus material filed for our weekend anchors at WHYY.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission released its Cold Weather Survey on Tuesday. The annual tally of homes heading into winter without utility power was expected to be high this year, and the Philadelphia region always has the lion’s share. But this year, it’s even worse. WHYY’s Denis Devine reports.

Click here to listen to this story; you can also read it below…

The number of Pennsylvania homes without central heat rose 5 percent this year. But the numbers reported by the Philadelphia region’s utilities were much higher. PGW reported a 13 and a half percent increase in households cut off from central heat this year, and PECO reported a whopping 70 percent increase.

Philadelphia attorney Jonathan Stein says that’s because the state’s largest utility is not being flexible enough.

“I think Peco has decided to crack the whip on their low income customers and the fallout is many more people entering the winter without a central heating source.

PECO spokeswoman Cathy Engle said the recession was to blame.

“We’re certainly seeing very harsh economic conditions and we have seen a increase in the amount of our PECO customers who seem to be struggling to meet their energy costs.”

Engle said PECO is working hard to inform customers about federal assistance programs like LIHEAP, and is reconnecting qualified customers even if their subsidy won’t cover all of their unpaid balance.

But critics like Stein want the state to restore regulations that make it harder for utilities to cut off customers, especially in winter. Denis Devine, WHYY News.

A report due out today (Monday) will reveal how many Pennsylvanians are going into winter without gas or electric heat in their home. The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission’s Cold Weather Survey comes a few days after it released a related list: a grim tally of all the deaths since 1989 in homes whose electric or gas service had been cut. Both lists are expected to grow this year, with the recession making it harder for Pennsylvanians to pay their utility bills. WHYY’s Denis Devine has the story.

Click HERE to hear this earlier story; below is the script.

Winter officially arrives on Sunday. Today, the state’s power regulators will say how many homes won’t have utility service. Many are bracing for the worst.

Jonathan Stein is general counsel for the Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services.

“The importance of the issue, particularly as winter approaches, is that receipt of utilities is a life and death issue for thousands of families.”

Advocates like Stein are campaigning to overturn a 2004 law, called Act 201, that made it easier for utilities to cut the power for nonpaying customers, even in winter. Today’s report could boost their case.

“We require all of the utilities to survey all of the homes that have been terminated within the last year. As part of that survey, what they are trying to do is reach out to people to make sure they know about the services that are available to help them get reconnected.”

The PUC’s Jen Korcher says you should first call your utility if you have a problem, but call the PUC next. Because the number of deaths from fires started by candles and kerosene heaters rises when the barometer falls. For WHYY, I’m Denis Devine.

Additional copy, prepared to be read by the WHYY host…

Employees at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission have kept an unofficial tally — compiled from media reports — of the number of deaths that happened in addresses where the gas or electric service had recently been shut off. The PUC released that list late Thursday, in response to pressure from advocates who want the state to change its laws surrounding when and how a utility can cut its customers off… especially in winter.

Jonathan Stein is general counsel for the Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services.

“The death list is a kind of canary in the mine kind of indicator of problems with the safety net being shredded.”

Harry S. Geller is with the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Utility Law Project.

“The list reminds us that terminating utility service to a household can lead to devastating consequences.”

The PUC list includes reports of 52 deaths in 34 incidents from 1989 through the end of 2004, or about 3.5 deaths per year. In the last four years, the list shows 29 deaths in eight incidents, or about seven deaths per year.

Advocates like Geller and Stein call this an undercount, as it only reflects those cases that made it into the news. But they blame the rising number of deaths, often in fires that were started by candles or kerosene heaters, on a change in Pennsylvania law that took effect in 2005.

That law, Act 201, made it easier for the state’s utilities to cut the power on nonpaying customers. It also lifted a restriction on doing that in the dead of winter.

Stein says the list of power-shutoff-related deaths proves that the deregulation of Act 201 has put poor Pennsylvanians at risk, at the most dangerous time of year.

“It reveals the grave consequences of arbitrary utility terminations and most importantly, it shows that in the period after Act 201 was passed, the number of deaths has doubled.”

On Monday, the PUC is set to release two additional reports. One will list the number of homes going into this winter that have had their power cut off. The other will provide an annual update on Act 201 and its effects.

“If families do not have state protections against erroneous utility company decisions, their lives are in jeopardy. And this death list, and the numbers coming out from the PUC on December 15 should put a spotlight on Harrisburg’s inability to adequately protect the lives of utility customers.”

At the Public Utilities Commission, spokeswoman Jen Kocher says the number of customers cut off from their power has risen this year.

“We have seen an increase in terminations this year so far, but on the other side we have seen an increase in reconnections as well.”

The PUC’s Jen Kocher has this advice for people who are having trouble with their utility, or in keeping their power on.

“The commission every year, we have conducted a Prepare Now campaign, and it’s prepare now for higher winter heating costs. And we’ve been doing as much of a push as we can trying to educate consumers that there are programs available that will help them restore and maintain their service. We need consumers to talk with their utility. They start with their utility first. And if they’re unhappy with any of their dealings we ask that they call the Public Utilities Commission. We have a toll free number and it’s 1-800-692-7380 and they can call us, we have people that are trained and can help them work through their issues with the utility.”

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