PHOENIX — Arizona regulators could soon vote on emergency rules barring electric utilities from disconnecting power to customers who are late on their bills from June 1 through Sept. 30, when temperatures routinely soar past 100 degrees (37.8 Celsius).
The proposal by Arizona Corporation Commission staff was posted late Tuesday, less than a week after it was reported that a 72-year-old Sun City West woman had died after her power was disconnected in September.
The commission is set to consider the plan Thursday, with the emergency rules taking effect immediately if approved.
Arizona Public Service Co. disconnected Stephanie Pullman's power after she paid $125 of her $176 bill. Her heat-related death was first reported last Thursday by Phoenix New Times.
APS, the state's largest utility with 1.1 million residential customers, immediately suspended disconnections and Tucson Electric Power followed on Friday.
Salt River Project, a major power supplier in metropolitan Phoenix with about a million customers, isn't covered by the commission because it is a quasi-government agency.
All five commissioners appear supportive of major changes in disconnection rules, although they could modify the proposal.
On the day Pullman's death was publicized, Commissioner Boyd Dunn sought a review of disconnect policies and utilities' practices and for a recommendation for new rules. He was quickly joined by Commissioner Justin Olson.
“Customers will still be responsible to pay their bills but if they are not paying bills the shut off won't occur until the more fair weather of the fall.” Olson said. “The rule that we have in place right now says that the shut off‘s should not occur when weather will be extremely dangerous to health.”
Commission Chairman Bob Burns chimed in with a request for emergency rules to "protect the electric utility customers of Arizona from the health risks that can occur with the loss of electricity service during the summer heat and the winter cold."
Since then, Commissioners Sandra Kennedy and Lea Marquez Peterson have filed letters supporting the review.
Kennedy on Wednesday asked that the staff proposal be amended to bar late fees during summer months. And Burns is proposing extending the disconnect ban to customers who have recently paid at least half their bills or are $75 or less, no matter the time.
APS called the changes an important step that it supports and said it would continue its halt to disconnections under the proposed rules.
“ We wanna ensure it never happens again. I wish we were not in this scenario, I wish that this did not occur,” Commissioner Olson said.
SRP spokesman Scott Harelson said his company hasn't decided whether to voluntarily follow the new rules if they are adopted.
People who don't have their electricity cut off for non-payment during the summer months would still be required to pay their bills. And the commission's utilities division director, Elijah Abinah, said in a memo to commissioners that adopting the rule may raise rates for all customers, because payment delays and an increase in bad debt could be passed on to all customers.
The commission is tasked with overseeing electricity, water and other firms granted monopolies to operate in certain areas of the state. They set rates based on a utility's costs and a fair rate of return on its investments.
Asked about the death and whether new rules or laws are needed, Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday called it "tragic" before questioning the role of the commission.
"I would call on the corporation commission to look at what's possible here," Ducey said. "But I also think there's been a bit of a mission creep on the corporation beyond just setting rates. And something of this level could rise to legislation or regulation to protect Arizona's most vulnerable."
The commission granted a rate increase to APS in 2017 and since then its disconnections soared. More than 110,000 were logged in 2018 compared with an average of about 73,000 in the previous five years.
The company said a temporary halt to disconnections in 2017 skewed the 2018 numbers.