CPS Energy officials plan to resume shutting off customers who don’t pay their electric and natural gas bills in the coming months.

The San Antonio utility stopped shutting off services to electric and gas customers for nonpayment in March 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. Officials are considering resuming those shut-offs in “late spring to early summer,” depending on when vaccines become more widespread, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said at a Monday board meeting.

“Our goal is to try to have the vaccinations more available and taking hold in the community, so as the community comes back and gets to the right balance of restarting the economy and people getting back to work, then we would correlate with restarting the disconnects at that time,” Gold-Williams said.

Overdue bills are becoming an increasing financial burden to the utility. As of January, CPS Energy customers’ past-due balances had swelled to $93 million, up from $39 million in 2020, according to the most recent figures the utility has released.

The utility itself is struggling with massive bills for natural gas and wholesale electricity during the February storm that crippled the Texas energy system and caused more than 100 deaths statewide, including four in Bexar County. CPS Energy has sued more than 15 natural gas companies and the Texas electrical grid operator, aiming to bring down storm-related charges it says could top $1 billion.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and trustee Janie Gonzalez called for more dialogue at the utility’s board meetings before disconnections resume.

“I don’t see that that the vaccination process has an immediate impact on the financial realities that many of our residents are struggling with right now,” said Nirenberg, who as mayor is an ex officio member of the board.

Climate activists have called for CPS Energy to end the policy of disconnecting households making at or below 200% of the poverty level. From 2003 to 2019, the utility disconnected an average of 56,000 customers per year, according to data obtained by Greg Harman, a San Antonio organizer with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Disconnecting people’s power targets the most vulnerable and those whose lives are most at risk from power disconnections because they have the least resources to bounce back,” Harman said by phone Monday. “Just as this storm showed us, something as simple as insulation can mean the difference between life and death.”

Monday’s meeting also included an update on CPS Energy’s Rate Advisory Committee (RAC), a citizen group that will publicly examine the utility’s rates, financial structure, and long-term energy planning.

Of 280 applicants, 70% are men and 53% are white Anglos, CPS Energy Chief Customer Engagement Officer Rudy Garza said. Of the 69% of applicants inside San Antonio limits, most came from council districts 1 and 7-10. Only three to seven candidates each applied from council districts 2-6.

A March 29 map of the location of residence of each of the 280 applicants to CPS Energy's Rate Advisory Committee.
A March 29 map of the location of residence of each of the 280 applicants to CPS Energy’s Rate Advisory Committee. Credit: Courtesy / CPS Energy

The committee, approved last year, will include 11 people appointed by the CPS Energy board and one from each of the 10 City Council districts. Council members’ selections are due Wednesday. The CPS Energy board plans to approve its candidates and select a chair and vice chair at its May 24 meeting.

Gonzalez questioned whether the applicant pool was sufficiently diverse. She focused particularly on the high percentage of male candidates, though she said she didn’t want to see the RAC process slowed to make changes.

“I don’t want to delay it,” Gonzalez said. “At least we have 30% [women]. I just want to be sure that there’s diversity on the [RAC].”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.