Dominion urges voluntary utility disconnect ban extension

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Dominion Energy Virginia asked state regulators Monday to give utilities the option to suspend service disconnections for another four months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s largest electric utility made the request in a filing with the State Corporation Commission, which in March issued a suspension of electricity, gas, water and sewer utility service disconnections for nonpayment. It later extended the moratorium to June 15.

The commission has warned that the moratorium is not sustainable “on an unlimited basis” and that the cost of unpaid utility bills are ultimately borne by paying customers as operational costs of the utility.

“These costs do not disappear; they are shifted to other customers, who themselves may be struggling to make ends meet in the economic catastrophe caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the commission said when it granted the extension.

Last week, the commission issued an order seeking comment through Friday on next steps, given “the huge importance of this issue to millions of Virginia utility customers, both residential and business, as well as to Virginia’s economy.”

In written comments submitted Monday, Dominion suggested that the SCC allow the discretion for utilities to continue the moratorium “on a voluntary basis” for an additional four months. The company wrote that it would opt to extend the disconnect ban and a late payment fee moratorium.

“This voluntary extension will allow utilities to implement their own individual programs to assist customers in need as well as encourage payment as customers are able, helping to protect against cost shifting to other customers,” Dominion wrote.

The SCC had directed any commenter advocating for an extension to identify programs or mechanisms that would ensure the costs of the unpaid bills are defrayed.

Dominion Energy Virginia co-chief operating officer and executive vice president Bob Blue said the company is expanding payment plans for customers and adding funding to its bill payment assistance program called EnergyShare.

Both could help avoid an instance where a customer can't pay and those costs are “spread more broadly," he said.

Blue declined to say how many bills have gone unpaid since the moratorium went into place.

“We're focused on helping people be able to get through a tough time,” he said.

The latest job-loss figures from the U.S. Labor Department bring to 41 million the running total of Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus shutdowns took hold in mid-March. In Virginia, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to 10.6% in April, the latest month for which it is available.