On average, Nevada residents living in a single-family home saw a 22% increase — about $70— in their July energy bill compared to last year. (Photo: Ronda Churchill/Nevada Current)
Record heat in Southern Nevada throughout July drove scores of residents to take refuge in air-conditioned homes, but the cost of fighting off summer temperatures will likely leave an alarming number of Nevadans unable to pay their bills.
Last month was the hottest July ever recorded in Las Vegas, according to the National Weather Service, with an average high of 109 degrees. The service also noted that the last two weeks of July were the hottest 14-day stretch on record, with an average high of 112 degrees.
On average, Nevada residents living in a single-family home saw a 22% increase — about $70— in their July energy bill compared to last year. In Southern Nevada, where summer temperatures regularly hit triple-digits, the average energy bill for July reached about $407, up from $337 last year.
Electricity rates in July were set to be even higher before NV Energy agreed to temporarily reduce costs in late June.
For many Nevada households, an extra $60 to $70 dollars might only result in a slightly tighter budget, but for low-income households or individuals on a fixed income, higher utility bills mean choosing between paying utilities on time or dozens of other essential needs, like food and medication.
In the worst-case scenario, lack of payment may lead to a power shut-off, leaving families scrambling to find enough money to restore service, often only to face disconnection again.
Nevada does not require utilities to disclose the number of customers they disconnect, leaving little transparency of the magnitude of the problem. NV Energy, a monopoly with more than a million captive customers, has shown little interest in publicly sharing the number of disconnected customers.
“NV Energy does not share this type of data publicly,” said an NV Energy spokesperson in an email, adding that the company “works diligently with customers and makes every effort to avoid disconnecting power.”
More than $13 million in uncollected accounts
Data that is public reveals that more and more households are struggling to pay utility bills in Nevada.
Applications for state utility assistance over the last three months of available data reveal a stark 37% increase in demand compared to the same period last year. On average, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services has received about 3,000 applications for power bill assistance each month since April. Public health officials anticipate the high demand will continue as temperatures remain high throughout August.
The state program, called the Energy Assistance Program, provides a supplement for qualifying low-income Nevadans with the cost of home energy. Eligible households receive an annual, one-time per year benefit paid directly to their energy provider.
But the cost of that assistance ultimately falls on NV Energy customers. Part of the program’s funding is subsidized by ratepayers through NV Energy’s Universal Energy Charge, which adds 46 cents a month to the typical residential power bill.
Unpaid bills that can’t be recovered by NV Energy are eventually paid by customers too. While the energy company is not required to share the number of disconnected customers, they are required to disclose the debt from uncollected accounts they need remaining customers to cover.
In 2022, NV Energy disclosed more than $13 million in uncollected accounts from their more than one million customers, according to an NV Energy report filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada.
NV Energy debt from unpaid accounts — which can be passed on to customers — has steadily grown year to year based on the company’s reports filed with utility regulators over the past three years. On a per capita basis, the data shows the annual cost of bad debt expense per ratepayer was about $12.91 in 2019, $13.41 in 2020, $13.33 in 2021, and $13.70 in 2022.
While data for 2023 is not publicly available yet, higher energy rates this year will likely lead to more unpaid bills debt compared to previous years, and higher utility bills for customers down the line.
In response to higher rates, NV Energy has provided United Way of Southern Nevada with a $500,000 grant this year to assist senior citizens with unpaid energy bills through their REACH program, said Julian High, the president & CEO of United Way of Southern Nevada. Those funds then go right back to NV Energy in the form of paid power bills.
The number of households seeking assistance from the REACH program increased by 50% compared to last year, said High.
“We’ve absolutely seen a big increase in demand for utility assistance,” High said. “We know that when people are on fixed incomes, they’re susceptible to the overwhelming pressures of primary utility prices going up.”
Various other philanthropic donors also provided United Way of Southern Nevada another $500,000 in funding this year, meaning the program can assist at least 3,000 households. The assistance program will hold four in-person events from August 22 – August 31.
‘Extreme heat’ reprieve from shut-offs
Nevada law does protect utility customers from power shut-offs during periods of extreme heat, when a lack of air conditioning can result in waves of hospitalizations or even death.
According to state statute, a utility company can’t terminate service for a non-paying customer if the National Weather Service has forecast a period of extreme heat within the next 24 hours within the customer’s geographical area.
In Southern Nevada, 100 degrees or higher is considered extreme heat for elderly or disabled residents living in mobile homes constructed before January 2000.
For elderly or disabled residents who live in other housing, 103 degrees or higher is considered extreme heat. NV Energy must also notify elderly customers at least 48 hours before termination of power.
Nevada residents 62 years or older are considered elderly, however, NV Energy does not collect customers’ ages, so elderly customers must notify NV Energy of their age to benefit from the state statute.
According to state statute, a utility also can’t terminate service to a customer if the utility knows that a household resident is confined to the home or uses a life support device, and is likely to die without the device if their power is shut off.
For all other residents in Southern Nevada, a forecast of 105 degrees or higher within a 24 hour period is considered extreme heat. Utilities also can’t terminate service to a customer for nonpayment if the outstanding amount owed is $50 or less.
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