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Energy companies working with customers

COVID: Energy companies working with strapped customers

Pictured is the lineman sculpture outside Black River Electric Cooperative in Fredericktown. The cooperative, along with other regional energy providers, is doing business in a new way due to the pandemic.

Missouri's energy providers in the Parkland have said they are working on efforts to give grace to customers affected by COVID-19’s impact on the economy.

In a press release issued Monday morning by the Public Service Commission (PSC), the governmental agency announced it had approved a request filed by Ameren Missouri for a variance from the company’s tariffs. The PSC regulates investor-owned utilities in the state including Ameren Missouri, but not municipally-operated systems and cooperatives. Tariffs — filings that utilities submit to the PSC for approval — provide the rates, terms and conditions related to the company providing and the customer receiving utility service.

What does the PSC’s approval mean for the average consumer?

By approving Ameren's variance, the PSC lets the energy company forego collecting fees related to late payments and reconnections. The move is intended to help customers dealing with financial hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ameren provides electric service to approximately 1.28 million customers in the state.

According to a news release issued by PSC Public Administrator Kevin Kelly, Ameren Missouri, in its filing, acknowledged that reductions in hours worked, job and shift losses, sick leave, and other impacts of COVID-19 emergency may prevent customers from paying on time.

Since Citizens Electric Cooperative (CEC), based in Perryville, is not-for-profit, it doesn’t fall under the PSC regulatory umbrella, but it’s also thinking about how the coronavirus affects its customers. It serves more than 27,000 members in Ste. Genevieve, Perry, and north Cape Girardeau counties, as well as parts of St. Francois, Jefferson, and Bollinger counties.

CEC Communication Specialist Shawn Seabaugh said the cooperative is also trying to give customers a bit of leeway during this unusual time. “Although our late fees are minimal, CEC will waive late fees and provide members more flexible payment arrangements on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Black River Electric Cooperative’s (BREC’s) Heather Dietiker, communication specialist, said they’re also working with customers based on their individual situations.

“We recognize the pandemic is creating some difficult times for our members. As a result, BREC has voluntarily suspended disconnects and late fees for members receiving a monthly bill until further notice,” she said. “However, as a member-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperative, BREC is encouraging members to actively manage their accounts now to avoid large catch-up bills later. We're happy to work with members on a case-by-case basis.”

Deitiker referred to a news release sent Monday afternoon regarding the cooperative’s request that the public pay their bills through technological means or by snail-mail, and refrain from visiting their building in Fredericktown in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Members are encouraged to call the office at 1-800-392-4711 for any coop business. BREC offers many ways to pay energy bills including paying by mail, through the website www.brec.coop, SmartHub App, payment kiosks, and pay by phone system at 1-888-461-COOP. Additionally, we have external deposit boxes at each of our office locations,” the release read.

The city of Farmington operates its own system.

City administrator Greg Beavers said at this time, they haven't adopted any special measures beyond their usual policy of making arrangements with people who are having trouble paying their bill. They usually extend the payments and ask residents to sign a promissory note.

"I roll things out a piece at a time as needed. We recognize people in the service industries are experiencing a lot of job loss," Beavers said. "This (the quarantine) will probably extend, at which time we'll evaluate other considerations as needed."

He said late fees or other penalties likely will not be waived, since "they're so nominal anyway like 1.5%."

Ameren’s variance was requested for the duration of the pandemic’s rise, to be lessened or lifted once the outbreak is recognized as waning. Ameren Missouri stated it will provide at least a 15-day notice to affected customers before the fees are reinstated.

According to Ameren Missouri’s website, the new Coronavirus Income Relief Program was developed to help workers from businesses such as restaurants, daycare facilities, retail stores and other organizations who normally don’t qualify for energy assistance.

Under the new program, Ameren Missouri customers with an active account can apply for $250 toward payment. Applications must be submitted through United Way of Greater St. Louis's website at 211helps.org/AmerenRelief. The utility company is also partnering with Heatupmissouri.org and questionnaires must be submitted through their website, as well.

Ameren customers can apply for energy assistance by:

  • Visiting 211helps.org/AmerenRelief if you are an Ameren Missouri customer who has been impacted by COVID-19 at your job and meet the qualifications based on household size and income (approx. $30,000 to $60,000 per year, per household).
  • Visiting Heatupmissouri.org or Heatupstlouis.org or call Heat-Up Crisis Hotline at 314-241-0001 or 314-657-1599. Funds are available for elderly and physically disabled individuals, and low-to-moderate income families; or individuals with their delinquent Ameren bills in Missouri, who may also be impacted by COVID-19, with income levels from $0 to $29,000 per year.

Tara Oglesby, Ameren vice president of customer experience, said the company already has energy assistant programs in place.

"The Income Relief Program is new and unique because we recognize that families throughout Missouri are being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic,” she said. “As a provider of a critical service, we want to assure customers that we will continue providing safe, reliable power, and also offer additional help to those financially affected by these extraordinary circumstances."

Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at shaas@dailyjournalonline.com.

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