By Linda So and Jonathan Allen
(Reuters) – Texas utility regulators will temporarily ban power companies from billing customers or disconnecting them for non-payment, after the deadly winter storm that caused widespread blackouts, Governor Greg Abbott said on Sunday.
Abbott called an emergency meeting with state lawmakers on Saturday after reports of many customers receiving bills for thousands of dollars for just a few days’ electricity service while Texas was gripped by frigid temperatures.
“Texans who have suffered through days of freezing cold without power should not be subjected to skyrocketing energy bills,” Abbott told reporters on Sunday in San Antonio.
He said the Public Utility Commission of Texas will order electricity companies to pause sending bills to customers, and will issue a temporary moratorium on disconnection for non-payment.
The state will use the time to find a way to protect utility customers, Abbott said.
“The issue about utility bills and the skyrocketing prices that so many homeowners and renters are facing is the top priority for the Texas legislature right now,” he said.
Texas has a highly unusual deregulated energy market that lets consumers choose between scores of competing electricity providers.
Some providers sell electricity at wholesale prices that rise in sync with demand, which skyrocketed as the record-breaking freeze gripped a state unaccustomed to extreme cold, killing at least two dozen people and knocking out power to more than 4 million people at its peak; some 30,000 people were still without power on Sunday, Abbott said.
As a result, some Texans who were still able to turn on lights or keep their fridge running found themselves with bills of $ 5,000 for just a five-day period, according to photos of invoices posted on social media by angry consumers.
The Dallas Morning News said one provider offering a wholesale tariff plan had urged its thousands of customers to switch suppliers ahead of the storm to avoid high prices, but many found it would take too long to change their provider.
“The bill should go to the state of Texas,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in an interview with CBS News on Sunday. “When they’re getting these exorbitant electricity bills and they’re having to pay for their homes, repair their homes, they should not have to bear the responsibility.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price told CBS both the state and the federal government should help with the bills.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who was forced to cut short a jaunt with his family to the Mexican beach resort of Cancun after public outrage, also distanced himself from the free-market system he had previously praised.
“This is WRONG,” Cruz wrote on Twitter. “No power company should get a windfall because of a natural disaster, and Texans shouldn’t get hammered by ridiculous rate increases for last week’s energy debacle. State and local regulators should act swiftly to prevent this injustice.”
Separately, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued civil investigative demands to power companies regarding the outages, their emergency plans and pricing, saying that the companies “grossly mishandled” the weather emergency.
U.S. President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Texas on Saturday that makes federal funding available to people harmed by the storm, including assistance for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans.
All power plants were back online this weekend and power had been restored to most homes as the weather returned to normal, but concerns still remained about water supplies, with millions of Texans being advised to boil water before using. Houston officials said the city’s water was safe to use without boiling as of Sunday.
The Texas National Guard and military members from several states were helping to deliver and distribute bottled water to Texans in need, Abbott said.
Texas is also bringing in plumbers from out of state to help repair burst pipes, the governor said. Homeowners or renters who do not have insurance may be able to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he said.