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Pennsylvania’s PUC asks if utility aid programs can be improved

Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission wants to hear about how low-income utility assistance programs could be improved and streamlined to make enrollment and re-enrollment easier for customers.

The commission voted in March to examine barriers to coordination between utility companies and between utilities and the state Department of Human Services; and to look at administering customer assistance programs — which are currently run separately by each individual utility company — on a statewide basis. The commission will also examine if its customer assistance policies that apply to natural gas and electric companies should also apply to water utilities.

Streamlining enrollment to make it easier for low-income households to get assistance has long been a goal of some advocates.

“Right now, we have many programs that are very important that are under-subscribed, and part of that is the hurdles to getting enrolled in each program,” said Elizabeth Marx, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project. “We live in 2023 and there's no reason why we can't figure out a common application process,” rather than households having to fill out separate applications for aid from electric, natural gas, and water companies.

“You should not have to provide the same documentation multiple times to enroll in assistance programs. At least that's the goal or the hope,” said Patrick Cicero, the state’s consumer advocate.

Locally, because nonprofit Dollar Energy Fund administers customer assistance programs for a number of utility companies, some southwestern Pennsylvanians who apply for utility aid are able to get help for multiple utility bills on the same call.

But utility aid programs are all slightly different, said Chad Quinn, CEO of Dollar Energy Fund.

“A lot of the information we capture for one program we can use for another program,” Quinn said. “But right now, all of the utilities are somewhat different in the information they collect, or the way they treat certain types of income or the way they count members of a household in one particular way. So, what we're hoping is that in the future we can make sure that all the utilities are on the same page.”

Some utility companies and a utility industry group say they do see some room for improvement, but they are skeptical of using one common enrollment application.

“Every company has their own program, which is tailored to their service territory, their customers, their particular needs. And we kind of think that that system works well. … So in terms of efficiencies or streamlining, you know, we think that some improvements could be made on the margins," said Nicole Luciano, manager of policy and research at the energy association of Pennsylvania.

The association is supportive of efforts to work with the state Department of Human Services to share information between the department and utility companies. That would make it easier for people who apply for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to also get enrolled in their utilities’ customer assistance programs. That system is not expected to go live until late 2024.

Despite seeking comments on the matter, it is unclear if the PUC will ultimately take action. The commission voted 3-2 in favor of gathering comments.

The commission will accept comments until June 7.

Kate Giammarise