Time is running out for residential CPS Energy customers to avoid disconnections, which will begin on Oct. 1, according to the utility.

Almost 72,000 residential customers are eligible to have their power disconnected as early as Friday, a CPS energy official told the San Antonio Report Monday.

As of Sunday, 118,069 accounts are past due, and of those, 76,012 are eligible for disconnection, said spokeswoman Nora Castro. Commercial accounts make up 4,100 of those, and 71,912 are residential accounts.

The utility is owed $93 million from those accounts, Castro said.

“We don’t want anyone disconnected,” said CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams. “We believe that getting San Antonio and all of our customers back on their feet is great for the community, and if that works and helps stabilize our community, that’s how we get stability. That said, for us to not be able to recover over $100 million in costs is our challenge.”

Utility officials are urging individuals facing disconnection to get put on a payment plan to avoid disconnection, Gold-Williams said. They have been doing as much outreach as they can to connect people to assistance programs, she said.

Those on a payment plan will not be disconnected, Gold-Williams said.

With so many disconnections looming, local activists on Monday gathered in front of CPS Energy headquarters demanding the energy utility delay cutting off power to vulnerable households and reconsider the imminent rate increase.

“We believe the right to electricity and water is a human right,” said Anacua Garcia, an activist with Climate Action SA. “We’ve been telling the board of trustees just how impactful this is going to be to the community, or how detrimental it’s going to be, and they don’t seem to budge on that.”

Not all 76,000 accounts will be disconnected on Oct. 1, CPS Energy spokeswoman Christine Patmon said. At most, the number of people disconnected in one day would be in the hundreds, not the thousands, she said.

Outreach efforts to help customers avoid getting disconnected over the past two months have included mail inserts, phone calls, assistance events, and helping customers connect to city, county, state, or federal aid, CPS Energy spokeswoman Melissa Sorola told the San Antonio Report.

CPS Energy has helped connect its customers with $38 million in aid since last June. Those efforts will continue, Sorola said; the utility has several assistance fairs and town halls scheduled this week and next.

During the protest, Dee Dee Belmares, a San Antonio-based climate organizer with Public Citizen, said CPS Energy is making things extremely difficult for low-income San Antonio residents struggling financially from the coronavirus pandemic and from February’s winter storm.

“There is a perfect storm brewing at CPS Energy,” Belmares said. “Starting October 1 our neighbors that are behind on their utility bill are going to have their electricity or their water turned off.” The rate increase will only exacerbate the issue, Belmares said.

Double digit rate increase

Before its board meeting, CPS Energy held a press conference to describe where they are in the process of requesting a rate increase from the San Antonio City Council. The utility will be ramping up efforts over the next several weeks to educate the community about why it needs the rate increase, which is currently estimated at 10%, Gold-Williams said.

“We just want to make sure we are talking to [customers] about the drivers of where we sit from a financial standpoint today,” Gold-Williams told the board of trustees during their meeting Monday.

Soon, CPS Energy officials will begin educating its own employees, reaching out to media, sharing information with customers through email, social media, and other avenues, and soliciting feedback, said Rudy Garza, CPS Energy’s chief customer engagement officer.

In the next phase, CPS Energy officials will gather official input from its rate advisory committee and citizens advisory committee, educate the city council on the drivers behind the need for a rate increase, and continue to do community outreach, Garza said.

The biggest drivers behind the rate increase are San Antonio’s growth, an increasing need to invest in cybersecurity, aging technology that needs to be maintained or updated, and an aging, shrinking workforce, CPS Energy’s Chief Financial Officer Cory Kuchinsky said during the board meeting. The coronavirus pandemic and the winter storm have only exacerbated the need for a rate increase, Gold-Williams said.

It’s been eight years since the utility sought a rate increase. Without one, CPS Energy can expect an $81.9 million loss next fiscal year, said board trustee Ed Kelley. A 10% increase would generate about $76 million, according to Kuchinsky’s presentation.

Discussions to bolster and enhance assistance programs after a rate increase are ongoing, Sorola said.

“The problem is we have a gap, and it’s just getting worse,” said Gold-Williams. “If we had done 2%, 3% every other year, we may not be here. … Even if we could hold out this year, we are obviously challenged going forward into the future year, so again — we’re not picking the time, the time is picking us.”

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here. Dee Dee Belmares is a member of the San Antonio Report Community Advisory Board.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...