Commission seeks further “refinement” of proposed Avista pilot program
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission is looking for “further development and refinement” of a proposed pilot program that would allow Avista Utilities to disconnect and reconnect power to customers from a remote location. The commission wants Avista and parties who have filed comments in the case to conduct workshops and then present a refined program for commission consideration.
Customer groups filing comments in the case fear remote disconnection of customers who are behind in payments could result in increased disconnections and threaten the health and safety of some customers.
Avista, which serves about 115,000 Idaho customers from Grangeville north to the Canadian border, proposes to install about 250 remote disconnect collars in rural areas and about 350 wireless meter devices in urban areas of its northern Idaho territory. Customers selected for the one-year pilot program would be those who have had multiple disconnects, are located in rural areas or otherwise occupy premises where Avista employees may be at risk for entering customer property and manually performing disconnects or reconnects.
Avista claims the program will reduce operating and maintenance expenses related to multiple disconnection and reconnections, increase the productivity of its employees by eliminating multiple trips to customer homes for collections, enhance employee safety, establish a quicker response time to reconnect service and recognize a reduction in bill defaults and write-offs by encouraging prompt consumer payment over time.
However, AARP Idaho said remote disconnection might increase the number of disconnections, impacting health and safety, particularly if customers are disconnected during extreme weather conditions. Currently, a utility employee visits a home before a disconnection, giving customers a final opportunity to pay. The home visit also provides an opporturnity for the utility employee to observe possible health and safety dangers, such as a customer using a respirator or other medical devices requiring electric service. AARP Idaho said Avista does not specify how customers would be selected for the pilot program and further stated that low-income seniors, ill and disabled customers and families with young children should not be included.
Another customer group, that Community Action Partnership of Idaho, said the program may benefit shareholders, but diminishes the level of service provided customers. CAPAI also expressed concern about a dramatic increase in disconnects and the loss of an opportunity to make a final payment before disconnection. CAPAI said the pilot might set a precedent for other utilities that don’t have as good a customer service record as Avista.
Comments filed by commission staff recommend approval of the program as part of its effort to encourage all utilities to use “smart meter” technology. But commission staff did express concern about how customers would be selected. An advantage of the program, commission staff said, is that power can be restored to a disconnected customer within minutes any time during the day or night and even on weekends. Under the current method, it can take several hours before a utility employee can schedule a home visit to restore power.
Whether the pilot is approved or not, Avista and all regulated utilities must abide by nearly all the commission’s customer service rules regarding disconnection. A first disconnection notice is sent at least seven days before the proposed disconnection date. A second notice is sent at least three days before disconnect. Then a call must be made to the customer at least 24 hours before disconnection. Under the pilot, Avista plans to continue providing written and oral notices. The only rule waived under the pilot is the one requiring a utility employee to knock on the customer door to provide a final opportunity to make a payment.
An order issued by the commission today directs Avista, commission staff, AARP Idaho and CAPAI to schedule workshops to develop more refined details for the proposed pilot program. Following the workshops, Avista would make a supplemental filing. Interested parties and customers would then have 14 days to comment on the supplemental filing before the commission would issue a final decision.
Documents related to this case can be accessed on the commission’s homepage at www.puc.idaho.gov. Click on the electric icon, then on “Open Electric Cases” and scroll down to Case No. AVU-E-07-09.