Shalini Mahajan, a managing director at Fitch Ratings, said delaying rate increases doesn’t necessarily pose a credit issue for utilities. Utilities have demonstrated to have good access to credit markets and other funding sources to make up for lags until their rate cases are settled. “It’s more a timing issue than a credit issue,” she said.

Moody’s said it expected any impacts to be temporary.

Complex Process
Setting a utility’s rates is a complex and time-consuming process, requiring public hearings. They’re onerous undertakings during normal times and nearly impossible when entire cities and states are on lockdown.

Rate increases have become crucial to the growth of power companies.

While electricity demand has been mostly flat in the U.S. over the past decade, utilities have increased earnings by nearly doubling spending on new power plants, pipelines and other capital projects. They’re allowed to recoup costs from those efforts, plus a rate of return set by regulators.

If the virus triggers a prolonged downturn, spending to modernize grids and to cut carbon emissions could suffer if regulators ask companies to limit investments and “stick to their needs and try to keep the lights on,” says Karl Rabago, founder of consulting firm Rabago Energy LLC and a former regulator on the Texas Public Utility Commission.

Duke Exposed
With about $1.5 billion in pending requests to raise rates, Duke is among utilities most exposed to delays.

Duke is considering options to protect its cash flows -- including temporarily increasing rates, then refunding customers later -- in the event of any delays, spokeswoman Meredith Archie said.

“Our current focus is on maintaining safe and reliable service to our customers and providing support to our communities in this time of need,” she said. “At the appropriate time, we will have the opportunity to have our cases heard.”

Ultimately, the impact on utilities overall will hinge on how much economic pain the virus inflicts.