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Josh McClenney and Shiva Patel: COVID exposes energy burden, deep wealth disparities

Josh McClenney and Shiva Patel: COVID exposes energy burden, deep wealth disparities

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As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the country, it’s clear that many vulnerable communities have been hit the hardest both in terms of financial and public health, and will likely experience extended suffering.

The pandemic has ruthlessly laid bare the depth of economic disparity that existed long before the virus struck. As North Carolina leaders work to stanch the immediate crisis, it’s imperative they adopt policies to ensure families and small businesses emerge stronger than before — and a starting point is addressing electricity utility services.

Nearly 1 million households have suffered a high energy burden for years, paying a disproportionately high percentage of their income on monthly energy bills. In Forsyth County, one quarter of the population identifies as low-income and has an energy burden of at least 10%. African American households, which are more likely to experience asthma, respiratory illness or heart disease due to energy burden or inequitable energy systems, are also the hardest hit by the COVID crisis.

Since March, grassroots groups have worked with the Energy Justice North Carolina coalition to track utility disconnect policies. The Cooper administration’s suspension of certain utility shutoffs and late payments was heartening, saving customers $2.7 million in uncharged late fees and resulting in more than 120,000 ratepayers continuing to receive service when they otherwise would have been disconnected. Duke Energy voluntarily stopped shutoffs and waived fees for debit and credit card payments.

We applaud the communities that fought hard for this and the utilities that are complying. Emergency responses such as utility shutoff moratoriums save lives, and these actions have already done so. But, with continued inaction at the federal level with regard to shutoffs, the need for state action is increasingly apparent. We call on the leadership in the General Assembly, including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, to pursue legislation addressing this.

Only a third of the state’s 75 municipal utilities had announced a no-shutoff policy before the governor’s order. Many electric cooperatives were also slow to respond. Unlike Duke, these local power companies are not required to report disconnections monthly.

North Carolina regulators and power providers can still implement stronger accountability and transparency policies to better prepare for future crises, be they viruses, hurricanes or floods. They should immediately put in place stronger protections for families and businesses to ease the financial hardship that will come from having to pay off utility debt once the moratoriums are lifted. Some proactive solutions include:

  • Extending the post-crisis repayment of utility late fees and arrearages from six to 18 months.
  • Requiring all electric utilities to submit monthly reports on utility disconnections, late-payment fees and bill arrearages.
  • Implementing a statewide program combining a cap on low-income energy bills with enrollment in weatherization programs.
  • Increasing budgets for low-income energy efficiency programs and implementing statewide inclusive on-bill finance programs.
  • And developing equitable low-income community programs for solar energy, which is increasingly less expensive than fossil fuels.

While some states have lacked strong policies to help ratepayers, others, like Alabama and Iowa, have seen community-led pressure drive action from the governor’s office. In California, utilities voluntarily took action to provide bill credits to all low-income customers, and green job and skills training for Coronavirus-affected workers.

So far, stimulus packages passed by Congress have failed to include basic utility shutoff moratoriums or adequate funding for states to deal with the ongoing crisis. As a result, 830 groups recently called for federal legislation that ensures moratoriums truly protect families.

While the number of shutoffs around the country will almost surely expand due to the coronavirus emergency and mass unemployment, the injustice of power shutoffs is not new and impacts hundreds of thousands of families and small businesses each year.

We need legislation in North Carolina and elsewhere that provides long-term solutions, including a permanent moratorium on power shutoffs for low-wealth families. Furthermore, we need massive investments in distributed clean energy systems so that families can rely on their own power generation instead of dirty, centralized corporate utilities.

The ongoing emergencies of wealth inequality, energy burden and the energy crisis necessitate these long-term solutions that are vital for the health of all families in this country.

Josh McClenney is the North Carolina energy democracy coordinator for Appalachian Voices. Shiva Patel is the energy justice campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.

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