Members of Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) on Wednesday approved the gas and electric distribution companies’ matching payment program for the 2022-23 winter heating season.

The three-member commission voted unanimously Wednesday to accept the program in its first “energy affordability annual review” docket.

The initiative is a statutory, utility-energy assistance program where customers must pay a set monthly payment amount to have their payments “matched” by their utility to help pay down a past-due balance, according to PURA. 

Commission member Michael Caron said the decision is part of an effort to bring “everyone along that is having real troubles affording the cost of energy and other critical utility services.” 

PURA Commissioner Mike Caron Credit: CTNewsJunkie file photo

To qualify, customers of gas heating or electric heating services must have a household income at or below 60% of the state median income, and; must apply for, and receive, funding through the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program (online applications are accepted). PURA has established a 65% success rate for utility customers completing the Matching Payment Program.

The utility companies submitted the application for PURA’s approval. Their plans are intended to, “meet the needs of financially challenged customers by providing information about weatherization programs, energy assistance, and other assistance programs available to customers, including the Companies’ various Arrearage Forgiveness Programs: The Matching Payment Program (MPP), Eversource’s New Start, and UI’s Bill Forgiveness Program (BFP),” according to the decision.

There is also a focus on partnering with community organizations to help educate the public about these assistance programs, the decision states. 

Wednesday’s decision sets forth various conditions that have to be met by Eversource, United Illuminating, Connecticut Natural Gas, and Southern Connecticut Gas.

For example, through the decision, PURA requires that Eversource and UI jointly propose metrics to track and assess participation rates and overall trends specifically for electric heating customers no later than June 15, 2023.

As part of the annual review, the companies must report whatever factors may have impacted customer participation and success rates in the current year as compared to previous years – including “a discussion of potential differences between the gas and electric success and failure rates,” according to the decision. The companies also have to report how successful their outreach and education programs are, and how they are improving them. 

Eversource and Avangrid will be required to each hold two in-person events (like a clinic) where customers can work directly with utility staff and/or Community Action Agencies to enroll in energy assistance programs and benefits, according to PURA.

Claire E. Coleman, the state’s Consumer Counsel, said she is pleased with the decision.

“The Office of Consumer Counsel appreciates the Authority’s focus in this docket on enhancing services and communication to financially challenged customers through improvements to energy assistance and arrearage forgiveness programs,” Coleman said. “Especially during this challenging time of high energy costs due to global market disruptions, transparency and education are critical to ensuring appropriate bill assistance and hardship protections are available for all eligible customers.”

She added that her office urges customers to be proactive about contacting their utility or local community action agency for assistance to help them offset rising electricity and heating costs. 

In April, the Authority issued a decision that had established a centralized data reporting platform, expansion of flexible payment arrangement plans for customers, and modifications to the companies’ existing medical web portals, and modifications to UI’s voluntary arrearage forgiveness program. 

In September, PURA issued a proposed final decision that directs the electric distribution companies to, no later than Nov. 1, 2023, establish a two-tiered, low-income discount rate with an overall eligibility cap set at 60% of the State Median Income, according to the decision.

In the decision, PURA says that its Office of Education, Outreach and Enforcement and the Office of Consumer Counsel have been working with the utility companies and the state Department of Social Services to discuss identifying customers who may have a need for energy assistance. 

In the absence of such an initiative, however, “the Authority has had to consider other potential solutions, albeit interim or otherwise not the preferred approach, in this and in prior proceedings to ensure customers eligible for financial hardship are identified and enrolled to take advantage of programs available to them,” according to the decision.