**FILE** Sandra Mattavous-Frye explained that the Utility Disconnection Protection Act could serve as the first step in addressing increasing energy demand and usage. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
**FILE** Sandra Mattavous-Frye explained that the Utility Disconnection Protection Act could serve as the first step in addressing increasing energy demand and usage. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

Since its re-establishment nearly 50 years ago, the has helped overburdened utilities customers enter payment plans and get their electric, gas, and water and phone service restored. 

However, Sandra Mattavous-Frye explained utility companies in recent years have been hard-pressed to provide relief to District consumers with unpaid bills, going as far as shutting off service during the winter and summer months. 

“The utilities are not reaching out for collaboration to improve the service and the life of the consumers we serve,” Mattavous-Frye told The Informer. “Usually consumers go to the utilities and do not get any relief then they would come to us and we’d negotiate a payment plan or settlement… It’s not frequent that we can do that. The consumer would be pressured to pay a certain plan that’s higher than their bill, then they default and are back where they started.”&Բ; 

OPC and Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) engaged in dialogue about this situation earlier in the year. 

Those conversations, in part, shaped the , legislation that Nadeau introduced on May 24 to prevent an electric or gas company from shutting off residential service during the summer and winter months. 

Mattavous-Frye said that the Utility Disconnection Protection Act could serve as the first step in addressing increasing energy demand and usage. She suggested that the bill also hold the D.C. government accountable in advising consumers about renewable energy options and subverting independent solar energy providers masquerading as a cost-effective alternative. 

“The benefits of this law is that it’s targeted for vulnerable communities,” Mattavous-Frye said. “Energy and utility services are essential. What happens without them are life and death consequences. There are consumers with young children during winter intensive days with no protection other than what we can negotiate,” she continued. 

A Council Member’s Attempt to Change the Scope of Energy Assistance

As outlined in the legislation, the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) would facilitate elements of the relief program. 

A DOEE spokesperson told The Informer that the agency is still assessing Nadeau’s legislation, including “its scope, fiscal implications and the potential impacts on the .”&Բ;

Nadeau said that the Utility Disconnection Protection Act will most likely not carry a fiscal impact because the legislation deals with public utilities. 

Policy currently prevents utility shutoff during weekends, holidays and when temperatures fall below 32 degrees and rise above 95 degrees. As OPC representatives explained, those stipulations often leave consumers without utilities around the time before extreme weather hits, despite efforts by utility providers to avoid such scenarios. 

Through LIHEAP, eligible residents receive a one-time regular energy assistance benefit of between $250 and $1,800. DOEE also provides emergency utility assistance payments of up to $750 to households of 55 years or older that experience utility disconnection, have an oil tank at capacity of 5% or less, and receive a disconnection notice.  

Other tools include the and, for homeowners who’ve fallen behind on mortgage and utility payments, the , and the Solar for All program, through which DOEE and the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) collaborate with solar contractors to provide solar power systems at no cost to income-eligible D.C. residents. 

For Nadeau, such resources often don’t suffice for constituents who’ve accumulated at least $10,000 in utility bills and exhausted every option available. 

“We need to fundamentally look at utility assistance [because] the need is starting to become almost as great as emergency rental assistance,” Nadeau told The Informer.

The Utility Disconnection Protection Act, which Nadeau co-introduced with D.C. Councilmember Trayon White (D-Ward 8), also establishes guidelines for eligible customers and limits what providers can charge consumers to turn back on utilities after they’ve been disconnected for nonpayment. 

This bill, a permanent and narrower version of protections implemented during the public health emergency, also requires that an electric or gas company reports monthly data on unpaid bills and disconnections to the Public Service Commission. 

If passed, it would work in tandem with the Water is Life Amendment Act, legislation that D.C. Councilmember Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) introduced in February to prevent the disconnection of water service. It would first have to go through the D.C. Council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development and Committee on Transportation and the Environment, chaired by D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (I-At large) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) respectively. 

“There are things we can do to reduce energy costs but people are struggling with utilities,” Nadeau said. 

“While these measures are in place to support them, we can’t have people without electricity when it’s 100 degrees. It’s not an easy thing to say to utility companies that they have to work with us. I haven’t seen a formal response, but I doubt they’re delighted.”&Բ;

Pepco Weighs In on the Matter

In 2020, Pepco, an Exelon company, launched its , an effort to address aging infrastructure and focus on the increasing energy needs of residents living in the areas known as: Mt. Vernon Triangle, NoMa, Capitol Crossing and Northwest One. 

The project, scheduled to wrap up in 2028, is anticipated to help the District meet its clean energy and climate goals by 2032, via substations and an underground transmission line. Last year, Pepco commemorated the upgrade to the Harvard Street Substation. Most recently, the utility company broke ground on the newly constructed Mt. Vernon Substation. 

The Champlain Substation, located in Adams Morgan in Northwest, is slated to start construction by the summer of 2025. 

Lamont Akins, director of governmental and external affairs at Pepco, said that while Pepco commends the intent of the Utility Disconnection Protection Act, and acknowledges the plight of vulnerable customers,  the utility has focused much of its attention on helping customers access energy efficiency and energy assistance programs facilitated by DOEE and DESEU. 

The legislation, particularly the portion that prevents utility shutoff during the winter and summer months, counters those efforts, Akins told The Informer. 

“When it talks about certain months [for preventing service shutoff], it looks like a continuous moratorium,” Akins said. “When you have customers that aren’t currently paying their bill, you create behavior where they never pay their energy bill. That bill will continue to rise and rise to be out of reach to get paid down.” 

At the conclusion of the public health emergency-related moratorium on utility payments last year, Pepco started disconnecting utilities for customers who accumulated unpaid energy bills. Akins said that those who experienced disconnection had balances in the thousands and tens of thousands. Further review of customers’ engagement with Pepco, he told The Informer, showed that some of them had not been paying their bills since before the pandemic. 

Akins noted that Pepco often encourages customers who are unable to meet their financial obligations to make their plight be known.  He said that Pepco representatives often make the rounds at community events to raise awareness about energy cost savings programs. 

“We always told OPC and other partners that it’s best for the customer to reach out to the credit department [for] some payment plan before getting shut off,” Akins said. “When you have a $6,000 or $12,000 energy bill, you have to pay [at least] 50% of that bill in order to keep that energy on or turn it back on. Once it’s shut off, it’s hard to turn it back on if [the consumer] doesn’t have a large amount to put on the bill.” 

Washington Gas didn’t respond to an Informer inquiry about the Utility Disconnection Protection Act. 

Consumers Struggle to Show the Faces Behind the Numbers 

In Southeast, an elderly resident suffered through four weeks without power after accumulating a balance of more than $4,000. Her daughter, who agreed to speak anonymously, said that Pepco Exelon, for the time being, has rectified the situation, but not without the mother-daughter duo going through hoops and hurdles. 

As the daughter told The Informer, her mother first received a utility bill within days of moving into her apartment due to the balance transferring from the previous tenant. Because her mother had the same name as the last tenant, Pepco thought that the mother was the next of kin, the daughter said. 

Future bills that the mother received had her mother’s name on it with another address. The daughter said that efforts to allay the confusion brought her toe to toe with Pepco, who wanted her mother to hire an electrician to confirm that the wiring in her home connected to the appropriate wiring.  

The daughter said that, after further conversation with Pepco Exelon, she and her mother wouldn’t have to explore that possibility. As she awaits the findings of Pepco Exelon’s investigation, the daughter laments whatever steps come next in clearing her mother’s name and, more importantly, preventing another utility shutoff. 

“Who do you go to? Who’s looking out for residents?” the daughter said, noting that without the property manager fixing the thermostat, the issue may never get rectified. 

“My mother could’ve passed out, or even experienced death. Thank God for that not happening. I could only imagine what she was going through.”&Բ;

A Northeast resident who also requested anonymity said that their electricity has been shut off for two months. They told The Informer that paying Pepco, in addition to paying their rent and food, took a toll on them, especially after losing their job. 

Despite their attempts to pay down their more-than-$2,000 electricity bill, the Northeast resident was unable to negotiate a payment plan with Pepco Exelon due to what they called the utility company’s insistence that the Northeast resident paid with checks that bounced. 

The Northeast resident has since sent Pepco Exelon bank statements to prove their history of payment. In the meantime, they store their food in a cooler, take showers at a nearby recreation center, charge their phone in the laundry room in their apartment building, and stay cool with a portable fan. 

As far as their two children, the Northeast resident sent them to live with their other parent for the summer. 

“It’s been hard [because] I haven’t seen my kids in months,” the Northeast resident said. “The gnats have been flying in my house. I haven’t been able to cook nothing. I’m stressed out trying to find money. It’s hard to find a job. I can’t even breathe in here.”&Բ;

In Northwest, a domestic violence survivor and mother of two fought to rectify her $4,500 situation after she learned that her estranged husband hadn’t been paying the utilities in the months leading up to his removal from the home via a protective order. 

The mother, who also requested anonymity, said that once OPC intervened, she arranged a payment. As she recalled, that milestone didn’t come without struggling to get utility companies to understand that her estranged husband, the delinquent customer, had since moved out of their residence, now leaving her with outstanding balances plus bills twice the amount of what she had been responsible for paying. 

“They didn’t care,” the mother said. “If they had cut off my gas, I wouldn’t be able to cook or have air conditioning,” she added. “I wouldn’t be able to maintain my household. I could’ve lost custody of my children. There would’ve been a drastic change to their livelihood, and mine as well.”

Sam P.K. Collins has nearly 20 years of journalism experience, a significant portion of which he gained at The Washington Informer. On any given day, he can be found piecing together a story, conducting...

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