June 13, 2008

Utility Shutoffs Rise ; Gas, Electric Customers Victims Of Bad Times

By Patrick Burns

Consumers struggling with budget-busting food and gas price hikes are falling behind on their utility bills more often.

Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission reported that electric and gas utilities have increased shutoffs this year by 52 percent.

PPL Electric Utilities, which serves 206,000 Lancaster County customers, led the way with a whopping 168 percent increase in service terminations during the first quarter compared to the same period in 2007.

Electric utilities alone increased shutoffs during that period by 69 percent, while the state PUC reported a 31 percent increase in service terminations by gas utilities.

UGI Gas, which serves more than 51,000 customers in Lancaster County, recorded a 17 percent increase in shutoffs of natural gas customers in the first four months of 2008.

All of the first-quarter shutoffs reported by the state PUC occurred in April because state law prevents utilities from cutting off in the winter months.

Ryan Hill, PPL spokesman, said the numbers are the result of the slowing economy and reflect no change in PPL's shutoff policies.

People are paying more for food and fuel. The rising costs put more of a strain on a customer's budget "" we're seeing the effects of that, Hill said.

State Consumer Advocate Sonny Popowsky said PPL's terminations are disturbing, but he acknowledged the numbers for shutoffs are up almost everywhere.

Shutoffs by Peco Electric & Gas in Philadelphia, which serves 2.8 million electric and natural gas customers, rose 55 percent, according to state PUC data. Philadelphia Gas Works posted a 91 percent increase in terminations,

But not all gas utilities shut off more customers this year. Columbia Gas, which serves 410,000 customers across southern Pennsylvania, had 3 percent fewer shutoffs in the first quarter compared to 2007.

Water utilities reported a 51 percent rise in service terminations, according to the PUC. However, water utilities are not required to report shutoffs; only Pennsylvania-American and Aqua Pennsylvania did so voluntarily.

Electric companies that have racked up huge increases in shutoffs this year.

Met-Ed and Penn Power each recorded shutoff increases of more than 140 percent. Dominion Peoples reporting a 161 percent increase in terminations in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2007.

PPL disconnected 7,054 customers in the first quarter, up from 2,633 last year. Hill could not provide specific data on the number of Lancaster County customers affected by shutoffs.

Hill said PPL is committed to assisting customers who are having trouble making their payments. He said customers fail to take advantage of PPL's assistance programs and ignore 10-day and three- day warning notices.

Shutoffs are a last resort for us, Hill said. Our first choice is always to work with customers to establish a repayment plan.

Popowsky agreed it is likely the slow economy is the cause of the increased termination rates.

Customers have seen increases in both gas and electric rates recently.

PPL raised residential customers' rates by an average of 4.7 percent Jan. 1 and by 3.8 percent Aug. 1, 2007.

UGI customers got bad news this month when the company passed on its highest rate increase for any quarter. Gas rates increased June 1 by 11.4 percent, and they're expected to go up again by the end of the year.

UGI's average residential heating customer's bill rose this month from $135.91 to $151.47 per month.

The shutoffs are troublesome when you consider utility rates are likely going higher, Popowsky said.

Pennsylvania customers will see increases in their home electric bills of up to 60 percent by the time decade-old rate caps expire. Popowsky estimates that PPL rates will rise close to 40 percent when the increase hits "" Jan. 1, 2010, for PPL; Jan. 1, 2011, for the other utilities.

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