Eversource’s Berlin offices (Christine Stuart file photo) Credit: Christine Stuart photo

It’s a one-year trial meant to protect those who might not be able to pay their electricity bills this winter, but it’s receiving some criticism, too. For the first time, Eversource used third-party marketing data to identify Connecticut customers who may meet the definition for a financial hardship. However, it also means they will have to take steps to apply for a waiver if they want to change to a third-party electric supplier. 

Since announcing it was increasing rates about $84 per month for the average household, many Connecticut customers have been looking for alternatives before the new rates go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. 

The announcement surprised at least one resident of Enfield who posted on the Enfield CT Open Forum on Facebook. 

“Isn’t it interesting that it happens right when they double the supply costs and their delay your moving to a better supplier right when the double billing will start,” Marjorie Stradinger wrote. “This is outrageous and limits our legal right to choose an electric supplier.” 

Jessica Cain, vice president of Customer Operations and Assistance Programs for Eversource, said the utility was “working to proactively identify and then automatically put financial hardship customers on the best programs and protections for them.” 

She said as of early October there were 140,000 customers with financial hardship status and now they’re up to more than 195,000. 

She said this is a “special, one-time use of marketing data,” until the states Department of Social Services can communicate with the utility to let them know exactly who has come to the state for services and should be enrolled as a hardship case. 

The data, which uses information from the recent Census, identified customers based on an income range, which the customer will still have to verify, but automatically entering them in this program prevents them from having their electricity shut off between Nov. 1 and May 1, even if they don’t make any payments. 

Cain said they sent letters and emails to all customers who were designated with a financial hardship. 

“There’s about 1% of the total population of electric financial hardship accounts have had their supplier application rejected and about half a percent of that total population have called and relinquished their financial hardship status that does by regulation require a signature,” Cain said. 

She said it’s possible that some of the customers who were put on the hardship program may have been above the income threshold because it was based on an income range. 

“Regardless the ones we’ve been hearing from more recently are ones who want to choose a competitive supplier,” Cain said. “So we’ve been hearing that as well.” 

She said they submitted a motion to the Public Utility Regulatory Authority with the Office of Consumer Counsel on Thursday to address the issue. She said they want to continue to provide winter protection for all the customers identified through the marketing data trial because “we said we would,” but to also free their accounts from the financial hardship designation. 

At that point in order to opt-in to hardship status those customers would have to actively pursue the designation, but PURA regulators will still have to sign off on that and it’s unclear when that will happen. 

Cain said they made it easier for customers to relinquish their hardship status by putting a downloadable document on their website. She said they would update the information likely within the same day. Or she said customers can call them at 800-286-2828 to get access to the form. 

“We are required by our regulator to have a signature in order to relinquish that status,” Cain said. 

While customers with third-party suppliers have paid $300 million more than standard service customers since January 2015, state officials estimate that – due to recent disruptions in the energy market and higher than normal utility standard rates – third-party customers have saved a combined $10 million between January and September.

That’s making switching to a third-party supplier appealing to many customers with standard service through Eversource or United Illuminating.

Click here to read more about switching suppliers.