Regulators have given Texas utilities a payment-recovery option when electric users sign up with new providers and abandon their old power debts.
The Texas Public Utility Commission on Wednesday approved a so-called switch-hold rule.
Customers who are behind on their payments cannot just refuse to set up payment plans and then switch to another provider.
The Dallas Morning News reported Thursday that utilities must provide electricity to low-income customers during very hot or cold weather and to people who rely on electronic medical devices to survive. Companies must also offer deferred payment plans in some circumstances.
In return, the companies asked for the ability to place a switch-hold on customers who do not pay.
"I think we've struck a great balance," said Donna Nelson, the PUC commissioner who worked on the rule. "People who are trying to do the right thing aren't harmed or penalized."
PUC Chairman Barry Smitherman says all customers have to do is pay off the bill before they switch to another provider.
"The normal, average person understands that and doesn't have a problem with it," said Smitherman.
Ronnie Lowe, director of the Lancaster Outreach Center, praised the new rule.
Lowe deals with people who he says switch electricity providers often to avoid bills, then ask the charity for help. Another trick is putting the electricity bill in a child's name, which can create a blot on a child's credit report before he can even get his own credit card, according to Lowe.
"One of the things that we're trying to do is promote self-sufficiency," said Lowe. "We really want people to understand that the bill is their bill, and they're responsible for it."
Lowe, a member of TXU Energy's Low Income Advisory Board, says the utility gives the Dallas-area outreach center about $60,000 a year to pay utility bills for the needy.