MI AG Joins Groups Seeking To Help Low-Income Energy Customers

Lansing, MI - In an effort to secure additional financial relief for customers of Consumers Energy Co., Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and several ratepayer advocacy groups are asking the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to reconsider its denial of support for expanding a program the utility company has which provides credits to low-income customers.

Nessel and the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club filed a motion on Jan. 15 for rehearing before the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) regarding the utility company’s recent rate case. 

On Dec. 17, 2020, the MPSC approved a $90.2 million rate increase for electric customers of Consumers Energy. In addition to opposing the amount of the company’s originally proposed $244 million rate increase, the Attorney General, MEC, NRDC and Sierra Club also raised concerns about the unaffordability of Consumers Energy’s electric bills for its lowest-income customers. In 2020, Consumers Energy’s bills were on average the highest in the state at $106 per month. 

During the rate case, the Attorney General and advocacy groups argued for both short-term and longer-term programs and policies to provide more targeted, impactful and sustainable assistance for low-income customers, including an expansion in the Consumers Energy’s low-income assistance (LIA) credit program. 

In October 2020, the administrative law judge (ALJ) who presided over the case recommended the MPSC approve a $12.5 million increase for low-income payment assistance as it relates to the LIA credit, which would allow additional customers to receive the company’s $30 per-month credit.

Despite the lack of objections to the ALJ’s proposal to expand the LIA credit program, the MPSC did not approve that relief. Instead, the MPSC approved the company’s original pre-pandemic $6.1 million proposal for bill assistance. The majority ($4.6 million) of that money goes to an $8 per month Residential Income Assistance credit that the ALJ found to be nearly meaningless.

The joint petition for rehearing asks the MPSC to reconsider its decision to deny the expansion in the availability of the $30 per-month credit for low-income customers as recommended by the ALJ and unopposed by any other party in the case.

“There is valid concern regarding bill unaffordability, particularly now due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and low-income ratepayers who are already struggling to keep food on the table should not be forced to choose between feeding their families and paying their utility bills,” Nessel said. “I hope the relief requested in this joint petition brings additional resources for the people who need it, and I am grateful for the support of the MEC, NRDC, and Sierra Club in this fight for the betterment of all ratepayers.”

“We continue to see more Michigan families struggling because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, while at the same time gas and utility rates continue to increase,” said Charlotte Jameson, program director legislative affairs, energy, and drinking water policy for the Michigan Environmental Council. “Given that the Public Service Commission just approved an 8 percent increase in residential rates for Consumers’ customers, we would hope they would also increase assistance going to those who are struggling. We joined the petition for rehearing so low-income consumers can get the relief they desperately need on their monthly electric bills.”

“At a time when Michiganders are facing record unemployment and lost wages, low-income customers need more assistance,” said Derrell Slaughter, Michigan clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The commission should reverse its decision to increase that assistance, while expanding the program and providing an additional $12.5 million in funding for those customers.”

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Consumers Energy’s electric bills were highly unaffordable for the 450,000 low-income customers it serves,” said Sophie Stoepker, West Michigan clean energy organizer for Sierra Club. “The action of the Michigan Public Service Commission to reject this assistance will likely have detrimental consequences without remediation.”

If adopted, the proposal would result in a minimal cost increase of less than a quarter per month for all residential ratepayers. However, the expanded ratepayer access to the $30 per-month credit will make electric bills more affordable for more low-income customers and lead to more timely and complete payments thus reducing collection activities by Consumer Energy. Reduced collection costs will ultimately benefit all electric customers. 

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