Utility companies in New Hampshire have been allowed to collect deposits from customers in a number of circumstances for quite a while, as afforded by the Public Utilities Commission Administrative Rules (1203), however something has changed this year and it’s not just the name PSNH to Eversource.

According to the PUC rule 1203 (e):

  1. As a condition of existing residential service, a utility may require a deposit or a written guarantee or a direct debit account as provided for in (i) below, in the following circumstances:
    1. When the customer has received the following number of disconnect notices for nonpayment from the utility within a 12 month period:
      1. For customers billed monthly, 4 disconnect notices;
      2. For customers billed every 2 months, 3 disconnect notices; and
      3. For customers billed quarterly, 2 disconnect notices;
    2. When the customer’s service has been disconnected for non-payment of a delinquent account;
    3. When the utility has disconnected the customer’s service because the customer interfered with, or diverted, the service of the utility situated on, or delivered on or about, the customer’s premises; or
    4. When the customer has filed for bankruptcy and listed the utility as a creditor under the filing, and the filing has been accepted, in which case the deposit requirement shall be in accordance with 11 U.S.C. 366.

Now paragraphs (2) – (4) appear to be reasonable, much like the standing rule that a utility has the right to collect a deposit at the start of a new account, anybody who manages to be disconnected, or has not had a history of payments may be subject to a deposit. If a customer is simply unable to pay and suffers a disconnect, it is not unreasonable to expect a deposit to turn it back on, as they’ve demonstrated that they are unable to pay for the electricity which they purchased.

But paragraph (1) is a different animal altogether. It states that if a customer who has been paying their bills is late enough times, a deposit notice can be sent. I need to stress, this is not a customer who has been disconnected, but instead payed late enough that a disconnect notice was sent.

This has been a policy in effect for many years however it was entirely the utilities’ discretion how it was enforced, and if it would be enforced. This year is different… Eversource has decided to change the criteria by which they decide who to collect deposits from, and it appears it’s hitting a lot more people.

Couple the tightening grip of Eversource with one of the harshest winters in recent history, sky-rocketing electric costs, and a terrible economy, and what you get is tons of well-meaning customers getting caught in Eversource’s deposit net.

Customers who have had accounts for over a decade suffered the same hardships the rest of our state suffered this winter, have for the first time been sent deposit notices despite never having been disconnected for non-payment. Instead, the customers have only been late a number of times within the past twelve months.

And can we blame them for being late?

The costs of electricity are at an all-time high, with the temperature outside being as varied as it is, it’s close to impossible to predict just what your next bill might look like. And if it’s $200 more than some expected,  it might just take them a little longer to scrounge up the cash!

But Eversource has been given the discretion to require deposits from these accounts by the NH PUC.

How did I find out about these notices?

I, like many others, have been suffering the ill effects of our economy and harsh winter. Being a small business owner, it’s sometimes difficult to know when and how much my next paycheck will be. And sometimes that means I’m unable to pay my very unpredictable electric bill on time. And I do mean unpredictable! I have the misfortune of having electric heat at home, my bills range between $100 – $650 a month!

So, sure enough I received the deposit notice that so many are receiving. And it was big!

Hoping that Eversource would be reasonable and understand the predicament that I was in, I contacted them to hopefully reach an understanding that would allow me to continue using and paying for electricty. Surely they would be reasonable, and understand that while I was delinquent, I had always made payments as soon as the money was available. Much sooner than what was required to avoid shut-offs, which I have never experienced in the many years I’ve had an account with Eversource.

At this point they alerted me that there were options in lieu of a cash deposit. I would later find out these options were also afforded by the Public Utilities Commission, further down in their Administrative Rule 1203.03:

  1. In lieu of a deposit, a utility shall:
    1. Accept the irrevocable written guarantee of a responsible party such as a social service organization, a municipal welfare agency, a bank, or a customer in good standing of the utility as a surety for a customer service account, provided that any such guarantee shall:
      1. Be in writing;
      2. Include the maximum amount guaranteed; and
      3. Specify that the utility shall not hold the guarantor liable for the sums in excess of the
        maximum amount guaranteed unless agreed to in a separate written agreement; or
    2. With the agreement of both the utility and the customer, establish a direct debit account
      whereby the customer’s payment shall be automatically debited from his/her bank account each month.

I was relieved that there were options that wouldn’t take money directly from other needs that I had (car repairs, dental work, etc.).

In my experience with my electric bill, taking option (2) would be dangerous. In fact, the ebb and flow of customers in my small but growing business is exactly what put me in this predicament to begin with, it wouldn’t be a smart idea to give a monthly blank check to the utility knowing that the amount could vary by over $500.

But option (1) would be very doable! I called up a close friend of mine and asked if he’d be willing to write a guarantee for the amount, promising him, of course, that he wouldn’t be called upon. He agreed immediately with little fanfare. He happened to have just moved into Manchester, NH, and now had his own Eversource account and was in good standing. It looked like everything was going to work out just fine.

But that’s when things took a turn for the worse.

Eversource denied the written guarantee, citing that while my friend did indeed have an account, his was too young and they required an account with at least a year’s history on it. The only problem? The PUC Administrative Rules don’t actually allow Eversource that discretion. Whoops.

After much back-and-forth with the PUC and Eversource (including a very unproductive conference) I finally had to resort to opening an official complaint with the PUC. Here are some excerpts:

The term “shall” gives to the utility no level of discretion in the matter of acceptance of a written guarantee in lieu of a deposit- and can only be translated as “must.” In lieu of a deposit, a utility (Eversource) must accept a written guarantee of a responsible party of which the minimum acceptable requirements have been outlined further in this rule (1). The word “shall” then indicates that if one is to meet these acceptable minimum requirements, the utility must accept this in lieu of a deposit. The wording does not give discretion to the utility on whether or not they may accept this.

Nevertheless, in the case of the offer made by [my friend], who is a customer of Eversource who is current on his bills, Eversource has declined to accept his offer despite meeting the very qualifications outlined by the PUC. He is current on his Eversource bills and is considered in good standing by any common usage of the phrase.

The complaint is still open, and we are currently waiting a resolution and decision from the PUC.

During this time, Eversource was under direct instructions to put a hold on any disconnects that would’ve taken place. Despite this, Eversource managed to “forget” this order from the PUC and disconnect anyhow – on 5/19/15, 3 days before the due date of Eversource’s response to the complaint (of which we have not had any word).

I can’t suggest to know what’s happening behind closed doors at Eversource, but I can definitely tell you what it’s looking like to me and other customers of Eversource. It looks like when a company has a monopoly, and customers are not given any choice which carrier they’re allowed to do business with, the company will do as they please. If that means sending out heavy-handed demands for deposits from otherwise paying customers, then so be it. If that means taking a lackadaisical approach to following state regulations, well I think we know exactly where they land on that one. The fact that my power was shut off amidst this investigation might not be malicious, but the fact that they didn’t even concern themselves with the PUC’s rules and instructions before disconnecting my service tells us a lot about Eversource’s attitude towards the law and towards their customers.

The facts are simple:

  1. This policy of collecting deposits from struggling NH residents is overbearing and putting even more stress on them than the already harsh winter, sky rocketing energy costs, and poor economy are. It’s kicking people when they’re down.
  2. Eversource appears to be disinterested in following regulation regarding these deposits, potentially affecting unknowable numbers of NH residents.

I will update soon with the results of this open complaint. I can’t imagine any fancy foot work that could be used to defend such a blatant disregard for the PUC Administrative rules.