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Despite higher electric bills during work from home, utility companies aren't lowering rates

Posted at 4:00 AM, Sep 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-23 09:31:37-04

PHOENIX — Record heat means higher electric bills for a lot of us. But there's another reason you may be paying even more this summer. You may have been home much more often during the day than previous summers.

For six months, the Rebound Arizona team has been asking utilities and regulators the same question: Are you going to lower rates for those highest-rate workday hours when so many people are now forced to be home during the pandemic?

It happened in Toronto. Ontario regulators lowered rates by issuing an emergency order saying "customers pay the off-peak price throughout the day."

In Austin, Texas, the high usage rates were lowered. Officials said customers will have "less control... causing bills to increase dramatically."

But in Arizona, utilities offered payment plans, minimal rebates, and shutoff delays. APS and Tucson Electric extended a halt on shutoffs through the end of the year. SRP did the same thing for it's Economy Price Plan. Shutoffs begin October 1 for other customers who can't pay.

All of that just delays big bills that still must be paid. The Arizona Corporation Commission, which does not regulate SRP, has not pushed for a lower emergency rate that would have lowered those bills.

Commissioner Sandra Kennedy is the exception. In March, Kennedy urged the Commission to "implement a contingency tariff for the COVID-19 emergency immediately."

And in a recent statement, Kennedy says in part "for months this Commission has heard from the ratepayers about the added costs and struggles...This Commission remains silent. The Commission needs to do more to help the people of Arizona that elected us to protect them."

Commissioner Lea Marquez Peterson says while there was discussion about an emergency rate, "what we ultimately decided is to move forward with that rate case that is pending now." She's talking about a $184 million APS rate hike request that would mean an average increase of around 5%. The request is currently going through a hearing process.

So what does a rate hike request have to do with lowering existing rates? Commissioner Justin Olson says "that's the only thing we can use to legally adjust rates."

Olson says reducing rates for the pandemic would likely be contested. But he says during this rate request process, the Commission looks over evidence to decide if APS rates are "just and reasonable." If not, then Olson says “it’s our constitutional mandate to reduce those rates. That's why we asked APS to come in."

Olson says it depends on the evidence. But even a reduction in future rates comes too late for most consumers facing high bills now.

The APS rate hearings are still going on and you can weigh in remotely. Click here to see hearing dates and how to get involved.