COVID-19: Utility fee refunds headed to customers

Posted at 12:15 PM, May 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-11 01:29:30-04

PHOENIX — Millions of dollars are set to be returned to utility customers across the state, but not in the way you'd like. The Arizona Corporation Commission met this week to determine how to help customers with growing bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead of bringing rates down, the utilities had another idea, and the latest solution may go more to businesses than to you at home.

The state's two largest utility companies regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission -- APS and Tucson Electric Power (TEP) -- have collected millions in fees. If you're a customer, you've paid them.

They were intended to be used to help customers make their homes more energy efficient, but the funds have gone unused.

APS says their pot has reached $36 million and TPE's has reached $8.3 million.

Now, in light of the coronavirus, the companies say they want to give the money back.

The Arizona Corporation Commission approved TPE's plan to give the money back based on usage, while APS proposed two possible plans.

The first would use $16 million for bill discounts and a one-time bill forgiveness up to $300 for residential customers and small business owners. Another $20 million would be held for future energy-efficiency programs.

The second plan would return all $36 million to customers based on usage. It was also proposed that APS could spend an additional $10 million and then ask for it in an upcoming rate increase.

While $36 million may sound great, it could mean you only see dollars coming back, while bigger companies see thousands.

"If the people who need it most are getting a very small amount, it still is going to help, but it's not going to help as much as the 25% or the $300," said Diane Brown, the Executive Director of AZ PIRG Education Fund.

Diane says using money customers paid, set aside to to help them make their homes more efficient, is not a good idea.

"If you take advantage of rebates that utilities offer, you're able to save more money, not just on your current month's bill, but on bills for months and for years to come," said Diane.

None of the plans proposed addresses a rate freeze -- something Commissioner Sandra Kennedy proposed, and says would help much more for consumers now working from home during the pandemic.

"We have the ability to give increases in an emergency. Why can't we take this emergency that we're currently in, this pandemic emergency, and lower rates or even freeze rates," said Kennedy.

The Rebound Arizona team pushed commissioners on their rate position. Chairman Bob Burns and Commissioner Justin Olsen did not even respond, and it appears the one low-rate proposal is no longer an option.

After hours of discussion and many amendments from commissioners, APS's proposal to return the entire $36 million was approved. An amendment, however, prevents APS from asking for an increase in rates to cover any additional money they spend.

APS says they are asking shareholders to contribute around $5 million to help customers in the meantime.

TEP and APS customers can expect to see the refunds as a one-time credit on their June 2020 bills.

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