New Database Reveals Key Figures on Utility Customer Arrears and Shutoffs

A little over a year ago we were concerned about the pandemic causing thousands of utility customers to not be able to pay their bills, creating a huge backlog of customer debt. While we know that many of those fears did indeed come to pass, it has been difficult to determine the extent to which customers became indebted because the data from the utilities is far from transparent. 

Now, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is releasing a public database that hopefully can make this information more accessible. This “COVID-19 Utility Customer Data” site, available here, “features a database of regularly updated information on the number of regulated utility customers whose service has been shut off for nonpayment and customers who’ve had their service restored, as well as the number of customers enrolled in assistance plans and information on the number of customers who are 30, 60, 90 or more days past due on their utility bills,” the MPSC said in a news release.

The site collects data the utilities have been reporting in docket U-20757, as required by the MPSC. But the monthly reports submitted by the utilities come in very unwieldy PDFs. That means if you want to present the data in charts or otherwise edit it, you are looking at hours of manual data entry.

But the new site lets you quickly make charts that present some startling figures, such as those from the chart at the beginning of this post.

Numbers from that chart reflect all nine regulated utilities in Michigan. The amount of customer arrears in the most severe stage of delinquency—over 90 days overdue—has remained persistently high over the last six months.

This picture is still incomplete. For example, how does this persistent level of debt of over $200 million compare to historical averages for the utilities? We hope the MPSC will continue to add to this tool, which we have just begun exploring.