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Record number of Oregonians disconnected from electric, gas service as rates climb

Bob Jenks, executive director of the Oregon Citizens' Utility Board.
Oregon State Legislature
Bob Jenks, executive director of the Oregon Citizens' Utility Board.

More Oregonians had their electricity or natural gas service cut off in April than at any time in the six years the state’s been tracking disconnections, according to a presentation the head of the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board gave to a state Senate committee this week.

“Last month, 8,715 Oregon households were disconnected because of nonpayment of their bills to investor-owned utilities — both gas and electric,” Bob Jenks, executive director of the voter-created nonprofit Citizens’ Utility Board, told the Senate Interim Committee on Energy and Environment.

Jenks attributed the disconnections to higher natural gas and electric rates, exacerbated by inflation that has pushed up other household costs. January’s abnormally cold weather, which led to higher heating bills, was also a factor, he said.

“That’s just flabbergasting,” Republican Sen. Lynn Findley of Vale, vice chair of the Senate committee, said, in response to Jenks’ report.

Findley and other Republicans on the committee differed with Jenks on solutions to the problem of rapidly rising rates. The utility watchdog is advocating for caps on how much utilities can raise energy bills each year, changes to how for-profit private utility rates are approved and other regulatory solutions. Some Republicans advocated for less pressure to move away from fossil fuels and a focus on expanding energy supply.

But all shared concern for people struggling to pay their bills. “It’s sobering to me that there’s 8,715 shutoffs,” Findley said.

To better understand the people most vulnerable to having their electricity shut off, the Citizens’ Utility Board analyzed two years of power use of people living in poorly insulated manufactured homes in Ontario, an area of Eastern Oregon served by Idaho Power.

Those customers used the most electricity in January and December each year — when temperatures are coldest, and also when rate hikes are typically enacted in Oregon, Jenks said.

“These folks are paying hundreds of dollars to heat their homes, and most of these are the kind of families, the kind of folks, that live on fixed incomes, or really live paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

Bills can climb by more than $200 in a month when rate hikes and cold snaps coincide, which can be devastating for customers.

“It’s not surprising that winter rate hikes, combined with cold weather, is leading to these kinds of shutoffs,” Jenks said.

In just over two years, residential customers of Northwest Natural have seen rates climb 42.7%. At Pacific Power, rates have gone up 35.2% and Portland General electric rates have risen 43.8%.

Those utilities, along with Idaho Power, have all asked for additional residential rate increases this year. The Oregon Public Utility Commission is considering requests to raise rates 18% by Northwest Natural, 7.2% by PGE, 21.6% by Pacific Power and 27% by Idaho Power.

“Customers are unable to keep up with these rising utility rates, and that has led to the unprecedented number of disconnections last month,” Jenks said. “And it’s not getting any better. There’s no reason to believe next winter will be any easier for customers.”
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Courtney Sherwood is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Courtney is a past recipient of a Wharton Business Journalists Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a graduate of Grinnell College.