Electricity shut-offs hit 800K low-income homes, report warns

Source: By Miranda Willson, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 10, 2020

More than one in six Americans living at or below the federal poverty level said they were unable to pay an energy bill in April when many states enacted stay-at-home orders, with people of color hit the hardest, according to new research.

But the researchers who conducted the survey suspect that the findings are an understatement of conditions during the pandemic and that the problem has gotten worse as COVID-19 relief benefits and moratoriums on utility service shut-offs expire, said David Konisky, the report’s co-lead author and a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University.

Konisky and co-author Sanya Carley, an Indiana University public and environmental affairs professor, began the survey in May, asking 2,381 people across the country whose income was no more than twice the federal poverty rate whether they had been unable to pay an energy bill or experienced a shut-off in the previous month. Thirteen percent of respondents said they could not pay a bill, while 9% said they received a shut-off notice. Four percent had their service disconnected, despite many states having enacted emergency moratoriums on utility shut-offs, the survey found.

While 4% may seem like a small number of disconnections, the researchers estimate the number translates to 800,000 low-income households having their electricity service disconnected at the height of a pandemic.

“One of the key findings is that the pandemic has exacerbated energy insecurity,” Konisky said.

People of color and those in the lowest income brackets were hit especially hard, the survey found — 26.6% of Native Americans, 18.6% of Latinos and 16% of Black participants said they were unable to pay an energy bill, while 17% of people whose annual income was at or below the federal poverty level said they couldn’t pay.

“What we’re seeing is not everyone is being affected in the same way, and groups already vulnerable or at risk seem to be feeling the brunt of it,” Konisky said.

To assess whether people were having a harder time paying energy bills during the pandemic in particular, the researchers also asked participants whether they had been unable to pay an energy bill at some point in the last year. Of the 25% of people who said they weren’t able to pay a bill in the past year, just over half — 13% of all participants — said they couldn’t pay specifically in April.

“That’s basically suggesting that there’s been an amplification of the problem in recent times,” Konisky said.

Because many states and utility companies suspended late payment fees and service disconnections early on in the pandemic, the findings probably underestimate the number of affected people, according to Konisky.

Nineteen states currently have restrictions on utility service disconnections in place through at least the end of the month, while an additional three states have unclear or open-ended mandates in place, according to a recent analysis from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

“If utilities are free to begin disconnecting people again, and with the continued material hardships, that creates a lot of risk for these vulnerable populations, particularly in a hot month like August,” Konisky said.

While the results of the first round of the survey were released June 10, Konisky and Carley said they are now surveying the same group of people about their ability to pay energy bills several months into the pandemic.

A national moratorium?

The survey results are an indicator of the need for a nationwide moratorium on utility service shut-offs, said Greer Ryan, an energy policy analyst at CBD. The environmental group has advocated since March for a nationwide ban on utility shut-offs.

“Utilities that have the ability to weather the storm financially and can shoulder this kind of burden should be the ones doing so, rather than the families that are just trying to scrape by,” Ryan said.

According to a report commissioned by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) that was last updated July 25, nine states that previously had restrictions on utility service disconnections have allowed those measures to expire. An additional 19 states have lacked measures against residential utility disconnections throughout the pandemic or failed to provide information indicating any protections, according to the report.

Carper said last month in a statement that Congress should consider requiring states to protect residents from utility shut-offs as part of a future COVID-19 relief measure. Lawmakers so far, however, have not agreed on the details of a future stimulus bill (E&E Daily, Aug. 7).

In the meantime, some utility companies have voluntarily suspended late payment charges and service shut-offs during the pandemic. Elliott Nethercutt, principal researchers at the National Regulatory Research Institute, who works with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said NARUC is not opposed to state and local ordinances that have suspended disconnections.

“[State leaders] will step in and make the appropriate actions to best serve their state,” Nethercutt said.

Nonetheless, utility companies have also faced fiscal challenges of their own during COVID-19, said Desmarie Waterhouse, vice president of government relations and counsel at the American Public Power Association (APPA). Not-for-profit public power utilities represented by APPA have lost about 6% of their year-over-year revenue in 2020, Waterhouse said.

“To address the financial impacts of COVID-19 on customer and public power utilities, APPA strongly supports congressional efforts to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to assist the most in-need customers. We also support the creation of a forgivable loan program to help public power utilities weather revenue declines in communities hard hit by the pandemic,” she said in a statement.