PECO Proposes Prepaid Energy Bills, Opponents Push Back

Critics say the plan, inspired by prepaid cell phones and debit cards, will hurt low-income participants.

PECO customers may soon be able to stop paying monthly energy bills. The company wants to introduce what it calls an “advance payments plan” — a prepaid system, similar to a prepaid cell phone plan, that would let customers to pay for utilities as they go.

But before PECO can move forward with a pilot program, the company needs approval from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), and now, opponents of the plan are beginning to push back, Newsworks reports.

According to PECO’s petition to PUC, customers can voluntarily opt into the program and enter by paying a balance of $40 or more. As their balance gets closer to zero, they’ll receive notifications from the company, alerting them to replenish their funds. Smart meters will track usage, and the company will rely on customer usage history and payment data to help customers determine how many usage days they have remaining.

PECO’s goal is to increase customer satisfaction and decrease energy usage overall, but consumer advocates say the plan would hurt low-income applicants and customers. Patrick Cicero, of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, told Newsworks that the situation would present barriers like those created under prepaid cell phone plans:
“If you run out of minutes in the middle of the month, that creates communication barriers. “But if you run out of energy in the middle of the month, this is exponentially worse.”

PECO’s latest plan states that low-income applicants, those at 150 percent of the federal poverty line, or $36,450 a year for a family of four, are not allowed to participate. But the opponents argue that the plan is overall a way for PECO to get around a state law that bans the company from shutting off power for people living at 250 percent of the federal poverty level during winter months.

The company’s plan would give customers five days of emergency backup credits if their balance reaches zero. Those who use the backup credits will have to pay for them before purchasing any additional future use, the plan says. Customers can revert to standard billing at any point.

PECO wants to pilot the program with 1,000 customers beginning in early 2018. On January 23rd, says Newsworks, a judge for PUC will hear from PECO about the plan and from its opponents including the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project and the state Office of Consumer Advocate, a Philly-based tenant advocacy organization.

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