Louisville Gas & Electric has cut off electricity and gas for thousands of households behind on their bills since the utility resumed disconnections in June.
For much of the pandemic, a state moratorium blocked utilities from disconnecting past-due customers, but that has since ended. In its place, state utility regulators required power companies to establish payment plans, but when customers fail to pay on-time, utilities can disconnect services.
LG&E began disconnecting residential customers on June 14. They’ve since disconnected around 3,500 customers in their service territory, which includes Louisville and 16 surrounding counties.
“We encourage anyone who is in danger of being disconnected to contact us and establish a payment arrangement. We also will connect those customers with outside resources who can attempt to help financially,” wrote Chris Whelan, LG&E spokesperson, in an email.
Thousands of people are now without air conditioning during the hottest months of the year. Basic necessities like cooking, medicine and personal hygiene become significantly more challenging in a home without a working fridge or hot water. And there’s still an ongoing pandemic.
“And you can imagine if people are deciding not to pay their gas and electricity bills and are now becoming disconnected that’s got to indicate a severe need,” said Cathy Kuhn, Metropolitan Housing Coalition Executive Director.
As of June another approximately 21,000 LG&E customers were eligible for disconnection, meaning many more could soon lose power at a time when funding for utility assistance has begun to run dry.
The Association of Community Ministries and other community service providers have helped more than 10,000 residents pay their utilities, but they depleted all of the additional COVID-19 funding weeks ago, said Clare Wallace, executive director of the South Communities Ministry.
“All that money, every dollar that we’ve received as community service providers, we have spent,” Wallace said. “And there’s still, as we’ve seen, a tremendous need.”
The Association of Community Ministries is now trying to figure out how to spend the remaining dollars it has to fund their typical utility assistance program. That money was meant to last the rest of the year.
Similarly, the city’s website for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) program says its Spring Subsidy Component ended June 30. Louisville officials from the Office of Resilience and Community Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.
Wallace said the city has an additional $5 million from the American Rescue Plan set aside for utility assistance, but didn’t yet know how those dollars would be distributed.
She doubts even $5 million will be enough. Once customers are disconnected, they have to repay the full amount to be reconnected, Wallace said.
It’s likely those dollars would be distributed through the city’s LIHEAP program, but that program has its own hurdles. Applicants have to download and complete a processing form, set up an appointment, then drop off the required documentation. That all becomes more difficult when residents don’t have access to electricity and internet.
Wallace said Kentucky has done a better job than other states in helping vulnerable residents, but she also said the city’s infrastructure to distribute utility assistance has struggled to meet the need.
“We can’t wait until 3,500 people are being disconnected. We have to have those conversations before catastrophe strikes,” Wallace said.
As of last week, Louisville Water Company reported more than 16,000 customers who are eligible for disconnection. The utility has not yet turned off the tap for those who can’t pay.