Utilities urged to extend consumer protections during this pandemic

Minnesota utility regulators have asked the state’s electric and gas utilities to provide more safeguards for their customers in the wake of Governor Tim Walz’s Executive Order 20-01 declaring a peacetime emergency to protect Minnesotans from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

On March 24, a joint letter was sent to all electric and gas utilities operating in Minnesota from the Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley and Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioner Katie Sieben. It set forth a list of minimum actions requested of utilities for the duration of the national security or peacetime emergency, as follows:

  • Extend protections of Minnesota’s Cold Weather Rule specifically restricting the disconnection of residential customers for non-payment of utility bills and reconnecting customers who have been disconnected. This does not affect the utility’s ability to disconnect a customer’s service for public safety concerns unrelated to non-payment.
  • Waive late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of the economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Arrange payment plans for customers requesting help during this time that is based on the financial resources and circumstances of the customer.

Utilities were asked to e-File responses to these specific requests by April 3, 2020.

Minnesota’s Cold Weather Rule protects people from having their heat turned off for failing to pay their utility bills. The rule typically goes into effect on October 15 and ends on April 15, although utilities are now asked to extend this period due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. All electric and natural gas companies are required to offer this protection.

  • Under the Cold Weather Rule, customers who have a combined household income at or below 50% of the state median income ($52,014 for a family of four) are not required to pay more than 10% of their household income toward current and past heating bills. Additionally, others who struggle to pay heating bills may be able to arrange a Cold Weather Rule payment plan and should contact their service provider to discuss their options.
  • To prevent heating disconnection under the Cold Weather Rule, customers must first contact their utility to establish and maintain a monthly payment plan. Minnesotans who need to reconnect their service for the winter should contact their utility now to take advantage of the payment options.
  • The Cold Weather Rule does not apply to delivered fuels such as fuel oil, propane, or wood. However, Minnesotans who use these fuels are encouraged to contact the companies serving them to discuss payment options if they are concerned about their ability to pay. For example, state law requires that propane distributors offer all customers a budget plan.
  • The Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Affairs Office provides mediation services and consumer support with issues related to utility service disruptions or disconnections. Minnesotans needing information or help with their utility service provider can contact the Consumer Affairs Office for assistance at consumer.puc@state.mn.us, 651-296-0406 or 1-800-657-3782.
mm