Texas Officials Temporarily Halt Private Energy Companies From Sending Customers Absurd Bills

Texas Officials Temporarily Halt Private Energy Companies From Sending Customers Absurd Bills
An aerial view from a drone shows electrical power lines running through a neighbourhood on Feb. 19, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Amid days of nationwide frigid winter storms in which 58 people died, more than 4 million Texans were without power for much of the past week, with about 13 million Texans being forced to boil tap water in the aftermath of the strain on infrastructure. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

Folks across Texas are receiving outrageous energy bills in the wake of widespread utility shutoffs during last week’s cold snap. Thankfully, state officials issued some stopgap measures on Sunday to protect them from those ridiculous financial burdens.

At an emergency meeting held on Sunday, the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) signed an order temporarily stopping utility providers from sending out bills to residents. It also approved the immediate suspension of electricity or water shutoffs for non-payment until further notice.

The apply to all private utilities in the state, but not to the state’s 15 municipally-owned utilities or 76 electric cooperatives which are not within the PUCT’s jurisdiction.

“And this pause will give them time to address the electric and power billing challenges that Texans are seeing,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a press conference on Sunday.

PUCT also confirmed the continuation of a measure that requires electricity providers to offer deferred payment plans to customers who request them. Officials first approved this last March as the covid-19 pandemic started to take hold of the state.

At Sunday’s meeting, utility commission chair DeAnn Walker said the measures “are intended to be temporary, likely through the end of this week, to address the potential financial impacts that are especially challenging during this extremely difficult time.”

The measures came following an outpouring of rage about the high utility bills many Texans were receiving. Arlington’s Ty Williams, for instance, who uses the power supplier Griddy, told a local Fox affiliate station that he received a $US17,000 ($21,505) bill for the five days of electricity he used while many in his city experienced blackouts. On Saturday, PUCT said it will investigate customers’ high bills.

If you live in Texas and you get your power from a private utility, know you shouldn’t be getting sent energy bills right now. And if you receive an absurdly high bill, don’t panic, because if you can’t pay it, you shouldn’t be getting shut off. Another option is to shut off autopay on utilities bills while this disaster gets sorted out.

While some particularly egregious bills — like the $US200,000 ($253,000) bill that a Houston household recieved — were probably miscalculated, others are likely simply the result of swings in the ridiculously unregulated market. As Gizmodo reported over the weekend, “Griddy offers its customers wholesale variable plans with rates per kilowatt-hour tied to market prices, which rose to their maximum state-imposed cap of $US9,000 ($11,385) a megawatt-hour for five days this week.”

The “benefit” of those Griddy plans is that customers can save a few bucks when energy is cheap. But last week’s disaster shows what those bills look like when demand outstrips supply, driving prices upward. While PUCT’s moves are good and necessary to help families who are quite possibly dealing with huge costs from burst pipes, lost days or work, or other issues brought on by the cold snap, bigger moves to regulate the electricity market in Texas permanently are clearly needed.