The Arizona Corporation Commission has ordered Arizona Public Service and other utilities it regulates not to shut off power for non-payment of bills during the hot summer months, in the wake of a furor about the death of a Valley customer after a shut-off.
In 2018, 182 people died in the Valley from heat-related causes, five of those after their power was shut off, according to a coalition of university and government scientists in a study published in Environmental Research Letters this June.
The ACC order reinforced a voluntary suspension of power cutoffs by APS after the death of Sun City resident Stephanie Pullman. The ban on shut-offs from now until mid-October will also affect Rim Country customers, as APS and the ACC reconsider their policies.
The ACC also ordered power companies it regulates to immediately reconnect anyone shut off during June and refund any fees charged.
APS has publicly expressed its condolences for Pullman’s death.
“APS staff followed long-standing, well-established protocols when reaching out to Ms. Pullman when she became at risk of having her service disconnected. We are all saddened over Ms. Pullman’s passing last year, and we are committed to working with the Arizona Corporation Commission and others to ensure — to the best of our ability as an electricity service provider — that this doesn’t happen again,” said Jill Hanks, a communications consultant for APS media relations.
Meanwhile, the ACC staff completed an inquiry into Pullman’s death that concluded, “Staff cannot determine whether APS followed all disconnection protocols” when shutting off electricity for non-payment on Sept. 7, 2018, according to an ACC staff report.
Pullman, a 72-year-old with type II diabetes, was found dead in her bed a week after the shut-off. The National Weather Service recorded the outside temperature at 105 degrees on the day of the shut-off. An autopsy reported heat played a role in Pullman’s death, according to a report in the Phoenix New Times.
Rim Country residents are among the 72,787 accounts that had power shut off for non-payment in 2018.
The number of deaths due to heat has exponentially increased in Maricopa County since 2016. In 2001, one person died from heat-related incident. By 2018, that number jumped to 182.
More worrisome, 3 percent of deaths due to heat were caused by a lack of electricity, according to the data collected by Maricopa County and analyzed by the scientists.
Since reports of Pullman’s death have come out, both APS and the ACC have rushed to address the issue of shut-offs.
In mid-June, APS announced it would suspend shutting off customers’ electricity for non-payment for at least 30 days.
On June 20, the ACC voted for an emergency rule to “prevent residential electric utility customer service disconnections during the period from June 1 to Oct. 15,” said the commission in a press release.
The ACC does have rules for shutting off power to a customer. Poverty and health play a big role, but customers must also advocate for themselves.
During its investigation of Pullman’s death, ACC staff concluded, “Based on the limited information provided, staff cannot determine whether APS followed all disconnection protocols as prescribed by Commission rules and regulations.”
The ACC staff report found:
• ACC rules require a utility must provide adequate notice to the homeowner. In the case of Pullman, her relatives found only one notice. That shut-off notice had a shut-off date of Aug. 28, not Sept. 7. In its report, ACC staff said, “based upon the documentation provided by APS, staff concludes that bills were issued and shut-off notices were provided.” The various bills were sent to Pullman at least five days prior to shutting off her power.
• The ACC rule also requires, “service may only be disconnected in conjunction with a personal visit to the premises by an authorized representative of the utility.” APS provided the route the door hanger delivery driver used, “however, because APS could not provide a copy of the actual door hanger left at the residence, staff cannot substantiate that the door hanger was left at the residence.”
ACC staff also noted the APS service schedule deviates from ACC policy “as it does not require a personal visit.”
• The ACC rule does recognize those with “an annual income below the published federal poverty level and can produce evidence of this” as having a reason to suspend a shut-off. APS said Pullman did qualify for its Energy Support Program. Pullman lived on a $1,000 a month fixed income from Social Security. Despite qualifying for the support program, the ACC report showed Pullman’s bills topped over $300 when all the fees and fines were applied.
• The same rule also exempts shutting off residential service to those who are “ill, elderly, or handicapped,” but the customer has to do two things — prove they qualify and check with governmental and social assistance agencies to show there is no money to help. The customer must also prove a friend or family member cannot help pay the bill. In the case of Pullman, “APS did not provide staff with any documentation as to what Ms. Pullman was told. Therefore, staff cannot establish the extent to which APS complied with the provisions of this rule.”
• The ACC rule also states electricity cannot be shut off “where weather will be especially dangerous to health as defined or as determined by the (Corporation) Commission.” In its report, ACC staff found, “APS ... stated that it uses two of these weather services in implementing its policy and that if either one of those services issues a heat advisory, it suspends disconnections for the affected areas. APS stated that Sept. 7, 2018 was not a heat advisory day as determined by these third-party weather experts. Staff reviewed several heat advisory websites and concluded that no heat advisories were issued for Sept. 7, 2018.
The ACC investigation concluded it could not prove APS followed the established rules regarding its shut-off policies.
However, the company maintains it did follow correct procedures, despite the lack of documentation cited by the ACC staff.