Brian Wheeler, spokesperson for Consumers Energy (CE) said that on average, 1 percent, or less than 30,000 of the 3 million customers are given shut-off notices during the winter months.
Of these, he said fewer than half of those actually have power disrupted.
These numbers vary from year to year, as does the length of a service interruption.
According to the Michigan Public Service Commission Act 3 of 1939, utilities may shut down power for non-payment. However, in the winter, or “heating season,” utility providers will postpone shut-off “if a customer is an eligible low-income customer that enters into a winter protection payment plan with the provider and the customer provides documentation that the customer is actively seeking emergency assistance from an energy assistance program.”
Wheeler said that adults over age 65 cannot be disconnected during winter months, providing they prove they are older than 65.
Despite some misconceptions, utility companies can shut off your power in the winter — even with shut-off protection, for those under 65.
Wheeler said that even with shut-off protection, there’s an expectation that customers have to pay.
“A customer can see their service disconnected for not paying over time,” he said. “We encourage customers to reach out to us as soon as they know they may have difficulty paying their energy bills because we have programs that can help.
“We want everyone to have power, to stay warm,” he said. “These are friends, these are neighbors. We’d rather work with people to understand their options.”
If payment will become difficult, Wheeler said the client should contact CE right away to set up a payment plan. He said dialing 211 can link them to aid agencies.
“Any payment plan gets you on the road to being fully caught up. That’s the goal,” he said.
Utilities, such as Consumers Energy, will split up unpaid balances to be handled over time.
DTE Energy also offers shut-off protection and payment plans for struggling customers. Both utility giants have donated $10 million in the previous year to local outreach agencies, such as the CARE program.
Wheeler said the CARE program allows customers to get on a path of self-sufficiency by providing an affordable payment plan with monthly energy bill credits, as well as gradual forgiveness of past-due balances as a reward for on-time payments.
Average heating bills
Wheeler said overall, the rough average bill for natural gas is $75/month over the course of a year. Most of that cost, two-thirds, is concentrated in the winter months.
Averages can change year to year. In 2018 residential customers spent 10 percent less on natural gas during the months of November and December than in 2017.
He’s expecting it to get colder during the rest of the month so that average could change. Basically, utility bills are “as predictable as the weather in a Michigan winter,” Wheeler said.
This is why there are plans for easing the burden of high utility costs in the winter, such as budget plans, which take an average over the course of the year. This means a resident would pay more than they normally would in the summer, but less in the winter.
Crank up the furnace or use space heaters?
As a rule, Wheeler said turning up your furnace is less expensive than using small space heaters to make up the difference in a home. “(Heaters) tend to be more expensive, degree for degree,” he said.