Peco speeds up shut-offs

Peco Energy Co. has been shutting off power faster for people who haven't paid their electric bills. Through April, Peco says it stopped electricity to 21,453 customers for non-payment, up from 8,767 in the first four months of last year.

Among low-income families, the number doubled to 13,000, says Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, citing Peco data. He calls it "a big unannounced policy shift" that leaves thousands in danger. 

Peco agrees times are tough: "More than 66,000 Peco customers have received almost $28 million in (state-funded) LIHEAP assistance," compared to 41,000 grants totalling $11 million last year, spokeswoman Cathy Engle told me.

And Peco did shut a lot shut off more people this Spring, after the end of the usual December-to-March grace period that reduces shut-offs during the fatal cold season. But the company insists that's due to a one-time change in its enforcement that should result in fewer shut-offs before the winter heating season.  "There's not more people being terminated; the timing's different," over the course of the year, says Peco spokeswoman Engle.

"Previously, when we had come out of the winter moratorium, we would start on the terminations," she told me. "We would go after the person who was most delinquent first. Then, we realized that wasn't working," because people a little behind in Spring would fall far behind by Fall.

What's changed is that Peco is now enforcing its policy -- two written warnings and two calls, over at least two months, after you're already a month late -- against everyone, not just those farthest behind. The idea, Engle says, is to reduce fall shut-offs by catching late-payers, and reinstating them before the weather turns cold.

"We're going to be the same at the end of the year," as in 2008, when Peco shut off 54,603, Engle predicted.  The utility reconnects about 63 percent of the people it shuts off, after they pay what they owe.