As climate change continues to push Arizona's environment to deadly extremes, regulators are debating whether to limit when and how utilities can cut power to people behind on their bills.
Arizona has one of the nation's highest death rates from heat exposure, with more than 500 known cases in 2020. The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates the state's utilities, ordered a June-to-October pandemic-related moratorium on nonpayment cutoffs last year, and is considering whether to continue it in 2021.
While many heat-related fatalities were homeless people or outdoor workers, Steve Jennings, AARP Arizona associate state director, said the number of indoor deaths, among older people on fixed incomes has been rising for years.
"Power in Arizona is not an option in this climate; it's a necessity of life," he said, "and so when you're talking about taking away a necessity of life from people, it's a serious issue."
Utility companies don't oppose the moratorium, per se, but they disagree with recommendations from AARP and others to set 95 degrees and above, or 32 degrees and below, as trigger points.
There also is disagreement on what types of payment arrangements utilities must make with non-paying customers and what type of cutoff notifications they must provide. With digital meters, Jennings said, it's easy for them to just throw a switch.
"We really believe that if you're going to terminate it to someone, there should be a human contact with that person - a door knock," he said. "There are several states that require that, and the utilities never want to do it, but we think it's that important."
Jennings said AARP and others are pushing for uniform regulations on power shutoffs, rather than allowing each utility to set its own agenda.
"A statewide policy is simpler for people to understand," he said. "If you let each utility have their own policy and they bury it in their documents, there can be a lot of confusion about that."
The Corporation Commission will consider the cutoff regulations at its April 13 meeting. People can make verbal or written comments on the issue before that date. Look online at AZCC.gov and follow the instructions for public comment.