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Unpaid Utility Bills Grow As COVID-19 Pandemic Continues

Electric meter
Kevin Harber, via Creative Commons

The North Carolina Utilities Commission says nearly 1.5 million customers in the state have been delinquent in payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Utilities Commission says the unpaid bills amount to nearly $260 million.

Moratoriums suspending shutoffs were first issued in March. And utilities are now facing revenue shortfalls similar to the Great Recession, when customers lost their homes or adjusted their spending habits.

Elsemarie Mullins of UNC Chapel Hill's School of Government analyzed the way that utilities responded to that crisis.

“One of the big things from the Great Recession was that utilities that were able to take advantage of lower interest rates and lower costs for capital projects were able to save money in that way,” Mullins said. “We've seen that some, but we've haven't really seen that impact play out and whether that's going to be true this time or not.

Mullins says potential shutoffs, rising electric rates and the structure of payment plans in the wake of the pandemic could depend on each utility's financial well-being. Mullins also says that suspensions of utility shutoffs are more common during the COVID-19 crisis, and could present new financial challenges.

“Say August rolls around, someone signs up for a payment plan, and they're able to pay in August, but not able to pay in September,” Mullins said. “I think that's one of the big questions: how many of those delinquencies - how much of those accounts that are past due - how much of that is going to come back to utilities?”

The Utilities Commission has suspended shutoffs for utilities it regulates, like Duke Energy. But others like local water utilities and electric co-ops could start shutting off service next week.

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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