By Rebecca Bridges
For The Leader
If your income has been impacted by the Houston area’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order, a new program approved by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) offers assistance in paying your electricity bill.
The COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program (CERP) helps consumers who are having trouble paying their electricity bill due to job loss or because they are low income. CERP offers consumers two areas of assistance.
First, retail electricity providers must offer a deferred payment plan to any residential customer who requests one, regardless of their past payment history. This allows your electricity bill payments to be spread out over a longer period, and avoids disconnection as long as you make payments as agreed in your plan.
Second, consumers who are low income or who have recently filed for unemployment due to a COVID-19-related job loss can apply for the CERP program and receive bill payment assistance. Once enrolled in CERP, the account cannot be disconnected for non-payment. The PUCT initially plans for CERP assistance to be available for the next six months.
Last month, CenterPoint Energy, the local poles and wires company that manages electricity delivery in Houston, issued a moratorium on disconnections for non-payment in the Houston area. However, that hold on disconnections is no longer in effect.
Consumers are being urged to contact their retail electricity provider to set up payment arrangements or face possible disconnection. The new program became effective March 30.
The PUCT notes that consumers with a bill due in the next 10 days should contact their retail electricity provider immediately to avoid possible disconnection, if they are unable to pay their bill.
To enroll in the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program, call the state of Texas’ Low Income List Administrator at 866-454-8387. This number is staffed 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
Once on the program, residents should contact their electricity provider to make payment arrangements. The electricity provider can then receive direct payments from the CERP Fund to apply. However, the balance due will remain the consumer’s responsibility.
ElectricityPlans.com, an online electricity shopping site headquartered in Cypress, has posted a detailed FAQ on its website blog for additional information.
With the stay-at-home, work safe order in Harris County, residential customers can expect their monthly electricity usage to increase by around 8 percent, according to Innowatts, an energy data analytics company. Residents can take steps to reduce consumption around the house by adjusting the thermostat and by using ceiling fans to stay cool.
Consumers should note that, once in a deferred payment arrangement or on the CERP program, a “switch-hold” will be placed on their account. While the account will be protected from disconnection, the switch-hold will keep consumers from being able to switch to another electricity supplier for a better rate.
Before entering a deferred payment plan with their provider, consumers should check their electricity bill to make sure they are not on a month-to-month electricity rate. Off-contract rates can be 30-50 percent higher than those offered with a fixed-rate contract agreement.
Rebecca Bridges is an Oak Forest resident and Chief Marketing Officer for ElectricityPlans.com, an online electricity shopping platform that lets residential and commercial customers compare electricity rates to find the best electricity price.