By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — Arizonans would get permanent protection against having their electricity cut off on the hottest days of the year under a plan being advanced by staffers at the state Corporation Commission.
The proposal unveiled Friday would bar service termination if the weather forecast for the next five days says the temperature will rise above 95 degrees. Similar language is proposed for the other extreme, meaning the thermometer dipping to freezing in the coming five days.
For the moment, there should be no one disconnected: The commission earlier this year implemented an emergency rule barring shutoffs between June 1 and Oct. 15.
But that rule will self-destruct by next summer. And that would leaves in place the existing regulations that pretty much allow power companies to pull the plug except in cases where weather will be “especially dangerous to health.’’
And there is nothing in the current permanent rules that determines exactly how hot that has to be to stay a utility’s hand.The proposal also would beef up existing requirements for electric companies who want to cut power on other days to provide notice to customers before they find themselves in the dark -- or in the heat.
That will include finding out from each customers what is his or her preferred method of communication. And that notice would have to be provided at least two days ahead of termination.
But the really significant change here would require utilities to personally notify the customer or an adult at that address at least 48 hours ahead of time. That includes at least two efforts for in-person contact.
That is directly contrary to the policy and practices of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric company. In fact, Don Brandt, CEO of Pinnacle West Capital Corp., APS’ parent, has acknowledged in writing that the company specifically avoids such face-to-face contact as customers “have sometimes threatened and even injured’’ utility employees and contractors who have told them their power is in danger of being cut.Instead, they simply hang a notice on the door.
“To protect our employees and contractors, APS instructs them not to knock on customer doors or ring doorbells when visiting a residence to place a door hanger,’’ Mr. Brandt told regulators.
The staff proposal also suggests alternations to that latter requirement, requiring that there be not one but at least two written notices posted at the residence. And it spells out they must be “in conspicuous locations’’ such as the front door and by the garage door for those people who enter the house that way.
And, even after all that, the rules still would require the utility to telephone the customer.
It also seeks to ensure that customers who get one of those cutoff notices actually have a chance to respond, or at least keep the turnoff to a minimum. That means that the utility’s offices are open, including call centers, on the day the termination is scheduled and the following day.
The emergency rules that now govern electric companies regulated by the commission were adopted following public reports that a Sun City West woman whose service was terminated by APS on a 107-degree day after she paid just $125 of a $176 bill had died of a heat-related injury.
While the focus of the commission has so far been solely on electricity, the staff proposal also deals with natural gas.In that situation, though, the restrictions would kick in only when the forecast is that the temperature will not rise above 32 degrees. Here, too, the plan would require an effort to personally contact the customer.
And the plan also would extend to water, sewer and telephone services.
Written comments about the plan are due by Sept. 23.
None of this affects Salt River Project which is a quasi-government utility and gets to set its own rules.