PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As inflation rises, recent data has shown 50% of Americans were unable to pay bills on time last year. However, Oregonians struggling to make ends meet may now get some relief in the form of lower electric bills, after the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) approved the first-ever income-qualified utility discount this month.

Portland General Electric (PGE) customers will be the first to benefit, after PUC approved the utility company’s innovative new program, which began offering income-qualifying consumers a continued discount on monthly electric bills on April 18.

“This is the first program of its kind in Oregon to help provide relief to families who typically pay a higher percentage of their income to cover the cost of necessary utility services,” stated Megan Decker, PUC Chair. “PGE and organizations resourced to participate on behalf of utility customers worked together to develop a program that adds a layer of equity not historically available in energy rates.”

According to a PUC announcement Wednesday, consumers wishing to qualify must self-certify at the time of enrollment that their total household income is below or at 60% of the state median income level (SMI).

“The monthly bill discounts are calculated as a percentage of the bill and are offered at three levels based on total household income when compared to the (SMI) level,” PUC stated.

While SMI is dependent on how many people live in a household, current data for Oregon SMI as well as an energy assistance eligibility matrix can be viewed here

Three-Tier Oregon SMI energy assistance eligibility matrix, April 20, 2022
(Courtesy Oregon Public Utility Commission)

“The benefit to a percentage bill discount compared to a flat rate is that the amount of discount increases or decreases depending on the size of the customer’s bill. This is especially beneficial during winter heating and summer cooling seasons when bills are higher,” Decker said. “This tiered discount approach offers the highest level of discount each month for those in the greatest need.”

The new discount program comes after House Bill 2475, also known as the Energy Affordability Act, passed during the state’s 2021 Legislative Session. 

PUC said the passage of the bill granted the agency “authority to consider the financial burden of energy costs when making decisions about rates, bill credits, and program discounts for customers of investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities,” and allowed them to “consider equity in the ratemaking process to make energy more affordable for Oregonians and less of a financial burden.”

While the discount will reduce utility costs and stress for qualifying low-income consumers, the price-cuts are slated to be funded by a new monthly bill charge of roughly 23 cents for all other PGE customer types. 

According to PUC, the additional 23 cent charge expected on each residential consumer bill will account for an increase of about 0.22% per an average bill of 780 kilowatt hours. 

Although the program is the first of its kind, PUC predicts it will set a precedent, as other electric and natural gas utility companies are expected to file their own income-based discount programs later this year.

PUC confirmed NW Natural has already filed a similar discount program with the commission earlier this week.

Customers interested in the income-qualified bill discount program can register online at portlandgeneral.com/iqbd or call 503-228-6322.