States Are Letting Utility Companies Cut Off Power Just as Winter Arrives

Millions of U.S. residents behind on bills are at risk of having their electricity, heat and ability to stir up a hot meal cut off on December 22 by private utility companies, just a day after the solstice heralds the colder states’ descent into true winter’s chill. During the first months of the pandemic. 34 states issued power shutoff Moratoria protect residents who are in financial hardship from having their lights or water cut off due to late utility payments. December 2021 32 of those statesThese protections have been canceled.

New York and New Jersey are the two states that remain obstinate, despite their elected officials having extended deadlines multiple times. But each state’s moratorium is set to lapse before the end of the year, just when ratepayers are more behind in paymentsMore than ever: Ratepayers in the Empire State alone owed a staggering $1,021 as of November 2021 $2 billionEnergy giants like National Grid and Con Edison.

Public health officials warn about the imminent power shutoffs just as the new and most infectious COVID-19 variantIt was detected in the majorityU.S. States According to a working paperThe National Bureau of Economic Research found that earlier utility shutoffs had reduced the incidence of infections by more 4 percent and mortality rates by more 7 percent. If Congress had implemented a nationwide moratorium against utility shutoffs between March 2020 and November 2020, COVID-related deaths would have been reduced. nearly 15 percent.

Amber Johnson is the New York Energy Democracy Alliance (NYEDA)’s organizing and training director. She believes that defaulting on utility payments, and accruing overdue amounts, also known as arrearage is more common than people realize.

“If you’re behind in your bills, you think it’s just you, right?” she told Truthout. But 1.2 million householdsMore than 128,000 businessesAccording to monthly reports submitted to New York State Department of Public Service by the Alliance For a Green Economy, New York State is at least 60 days behind in paying their energy bills.

“We’re in a utility debt crisis,” Johnson said. On average, New York’s utility debt burdened households owed $1347. This contributed to an estimated $1.2 trillion in annual household debt. $35 to $40 billionAll 50 States

The problem isn’t new. Utility debt is common and a significant part of the problem. $15 trillion in U.S. household credit. But it’s gotten worse during the pandemic. All told, reporting by New York FocusNew York’s household utility bills rose by 119 percent between September 2021 and February 2020, with hundreds of thousand of shutoff notices being sent in November.

Johnson points out that communities of color and low-income communities are especially vulnerable to debt and shutoffs because of systemic injustice. Black families are more vulnerable to systemic injustices and debt because of historically racist housing policies. more likely to live in energy-inefficient housingAccording to the forthcoming, stock researchto be published in this journal Energy Research & Social Science.

Ebony Jackson, a community leader and small-business owner in Binghamton (New York), is Ebony. It is difficult to cover expenses as a single mom. Utility payments are the tipping points. “It’s really been the crux of my poverty,” she told producers of a short film played during the Utility Justice Film FestivalIn February 2021.

Jackson rented an older house that was leaky. The foundation was sagging which caused cracks and made the interior drafty. Plus, there weren’t even storm windows. Her landlord knew this, she said, but he was aiming to sell the house, so he didn’t want to invest in the fixes. At one point she owed more than $3,000 to her utility company, the New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG).

Energy executives and public officials have poured fuel on the fire, exacerbating existing debt like Jackson’s by continuing to propose and rubber-stamp rate hikes as the pandemic roars on. A NYSEG rate rise applied retroactively to April 2020-2023, increases average household costs by more than 9 percent.

“This is a reasonable outcome for ratepayers,” Public Service Commissioner John Howard told the USA Today New York NetworkThe utility requested a lower rate increase, which the agency approved.

Online mutual aid groups can be a great way to help you with your ballooning debt. @mutualaidmamas, @blackwomenexhale @dsm_mutual_aidWe have been busy distributing utility aid to those in greatest need.

The federal government offers the Home Energy Assistance Program, but the application process is cumbersome and doesn’t stretch far enough. In 2019, there will be approximately one-thirdNew York had a low percentage of eligible households that did not receive assistance. Some states have been involved in notable ways, too. California, for example, is involved in this endeavor. statewide arrearage management planSet aside $1 billion to assist with utility debt. Notably, and in contrast with many state programs, eligible residents do not need to apply — the assistance is automatically credited to accounts.

Avni Pravin is the deputy policy director at AGREE. She advises that those who are behind on their bills respond to shutoff notices. This is because utilities are required by law to set up a payment plan for customers. Pravin suggests also getting in touch with the Public Utility Law Project of New YorkThe utility rights training program enables residents to apply for assistance and file complaints on behalf ratepayers.

As crucial as they are in supporting residents who face the immediate threat of losing heat during the coldest month, temporary financial support and legal counselling provide little to no protection over the medium- to long-term.

“This is part of a larger system of unwillingness to actually do something about unaffordable energy,” Pravin said.

That’s why in New York, dozens of groups are callingGov. Kathy Hochul and members of the State Assembly pass emergency legislation directing the Public Service Commission cancel all utility debt and to pay the cost using corporate utility shareholder return. The letterAlso, a two-year extended moratorium on all utility shutoffs is requested.

New York is a leader in energy and climate policy, even though there isn’t any precedent for a comprehensive, statewide utility debt cancellation program. The 2019 state law was passed. most ambitious state-level climate legislationThe country’s electricity sector must be emission-free by 2040. An executive act mandating utility debt cancellation would build on this legislation, as advocates characterize dealing with utility debt as a precondition to rolling out the kinds of equity-centered renewable energy programs in the state’s historic climate law.

Advocates for energy justice are also pushing legislation that would allow for a shift away from private power generation and distribution to more democratically managed, publicly owned systems. These bills include the Build Public Renewables Act would help by requiring the state’s largest publicly owned utility to be the sole provider to both state-owned and municipally owned buildings and to exclusively source renewable energy.

Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator at the nonprofit Sane Energy Project, stated that without such legislation, private and public money paid by utility companies often goes towards funding projects that are harmful to the health and climate resilience in the communities they serve. As VICE News reported, in August 2021, the Public Service Commission voted 7-0 to approve a rate hike impacting 1.9 million residents, $129 million of which was earmarked to build National Grid’s North Brooklyn Pipeline, which has faced significant community opposition.

“That’s what people actually are going into debt to pay for,” Ziesche told Truthout. “They’re going into debt to pay for a fracked gas pipeline that they said that they didn’t want built through their community.”

This is not unusual. A 2021 Rocky Mountain Institute reportIt was found that gas utilities pass on the costs of building new pipelines to customers to the tune of hundreds of millions annuallyThis ensures that fossil gas is used for many more decades.

Josue Luna Navarro is the author a recent reportThe Institute for Policy Studies published a roadmap for New Mexico’s public power. Navarro states that the best thing about the public ownership model is the fact that revenue can be reinvested in community visions and not used to bankroll companies’ demands, such as the expansion of fossil gas pipelines. That means community wealth building. For instance, the lifespan of a locally owned solar farm will be 25 years. $5.4 millionAccording to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, electricity spending is directed back into local communities.

Public power would also likely lower the bills. Nebraska, currently the only state in the U.S.Residents pay less for their energy when they have 100 percent of the infrastructure owned by the public. In short, public ownership transforms access to energy “from a for-profit service to a basic human right,” Navarro writes.

According to Patrick Robbins (NYEDA coordinator), both the New York utility debt crisis and slow transition to renewables were caused by policies that favor private ownership. “If people actually have control over our energy system, and we’re making decisions about the basic resource that affects all of our lives, then you would be talking about a system that isn’t run solely for the benefit of a small handful of wealthy shareholders,” Robbins said. “We’d be talking about something that benefits all of us.”