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Health and weather experts weigh in on Arizona utility disconnection rules

Posted at 7:58 PM, Jan 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-30 21:58:05-05

PHOENIX, AZ — In the months following the disclosure that three Arizona Public Service customers died after their power was cut for non-payment during summer months the Arizona Corporation Commission has been working on rules to determine how hot is too hot to cut electricity service.

On Thursday Commissioners heard from weather and health experts about trends weather and heat-related illnesses and deaths.

Maricopa County Public Health Department (MCPHD), presented evidence that heat-related deaths are increasing.

Agency director, Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine told commissioners that heat associated deaths saw a sharp increase after 2015.

"The last three years have set record highs for the number of heat related deaths in Maricopa County," said Sunenshine, "So it is increasing every single year."

According to MCPHD data in 2015 there were 84 heat related deaths in Maricopa County. In 2016 that number jumped to 154. Amounts have gradually gone up each year with a current count of 190 for 2019. The County is still investigating an additional 10 cases that could add to the total.

Consumer advocates pointed out that seniors, people with low incomes those who live alone are amongst the most vulnerable to heat-related illness or death.

Officials say they don't have enough data to be able to determine how many, if any, of those deaths are related to the disconnection of electricity service. However ASU Professor and environmental scientist David Hondula testified that he does not believe it is related to the weather changing over those years.

Prior to the moratorium on shutoffs, Arizona Public Service has said it relied on NWS excessive heat warnings to determine when to disconnect delinquent customers. But Dr. Sunsenshine said 80 percent of heat-related deaths occur on days when there is no excessive heat warning.

A major point of contention is whether utilities would be prohibited from disconnecting during certain months, during certain temperature forecasts, or according to the heat index--which is what the temperature feels like to the body.

Paul Iñiguez, with the National Weather Service, that it does not use the heat index in drier climates because it doesn't work well for them. But even using a forecasted temperature threshold could present challenges because forecasts often change.

"There's not one forecast. Forecasts are opinions of the future. Anyone can provide them. You can get them from TV, you can get them from the newspaper," he told commissioners.

Last year commission staff recommended 105 as an acceptable threshold for disconnections.

Several speakers pointed out that many ratepayers have still not caught up on payments from the 2019 moratorium.

Rodney Ross with APS said, " A large number of customers, frankly, stopped paying their bills."

In a January 27 filing the company reported that 60,0450 were on payment arrangements with delinquent balances over $75 as of January 20.