As has been well established, the Peoples Gas pipe replacement program is driving a home heating affordability crisis in Chicago. In 2018, during a meeting wherein the Illinois Commerce Commission decided it could do nothing to reform the program, then-Commission Chairman Brien Sheahan stated that “the long-term annual costs that they have proposed will cause too great a burden for too many households in Chicago.”
New data on utility debt provided to the Commission underlines the severity of the problem.
Issues of utility affordability, debt, and disconnection have received increased scrutiny over the past year, as the economic impacts of the pandemic have forced many families to make tough decisions about which bills to pay. Additionally, the public health imperative to social distance by staying home as much as possible has highlighted the social importance of keeping everyone connected to essential services such as heat, power, and the internet. As it considers these issues, the Illinois Commerce Commission has requested significantly more data from utilities on debt, disconnection, and programs like deferred payment arrangements to help customers struggling to keep up with their bills.
While all major utilities have seen increases in debt this year, the stark differences between Peoples Gas and others highlights the severity and chronic nature of its affordability problems. For example, Peoples Gas customers with debt were collectively $146.5 million behind on their bills as of January 2021. That is $26 million more than ComEd customers, despite ComEd having roughly 2.9 million more residential customers.
The new data includes a comparison to the same month in 2020. Comparing the current year to last demonstrates that the Peoples Gas affordability problem is chronic and driven less by the pandemic than the affordability issues at the other utilities.
Interestingly, while all the four major utilities saw increases in total debt, they all also had less customers with debt in January 2021 than they did in January 2020. One theory is that relief programs, whether general federal stimulus or targeted utility affordability programs, have helped a certain number of customers pay off debt.