COVID-19 makes clear energy and water are public goods

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The latest jobless claims report verifies that workers are being sent home in droves due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Unemployed or with no hours on their timesheet, April 1 looms large with rent and utility bills due. As they stay home to do their part to stop the transmission of this virus, they are confronted with the possibility that they may lose water to wash their hands, electricity to keep them warm in quarantine and internet to keep them in communication with loved ones. 

The bill the Senate passed on Wednesday, and poised to be approved by the House on Friday, does provide for a one-off cash transfer and increases in unemployment benefits. There have also been promises of protections for some tenants from eviction. But this does nothing to address the mounting expenses of rent, bills and debt that households across America are suddenly unable to cover. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg of deep vulnerabilities in our energy and water systems. Rates for these basic services are unaffordable. But these services are essential for our survival, and acutely so. At the same time, they are making our communities sicker through old, lead water pipes and polluting energy infrastructure. Whether due to private control or public austerity, our infrastructure suffers from chronic underinvestment combined with ever-climbing rates.

The flip side is that investment paired with public, democratic control will make us all more secure. We need to guarantee rights to publicly owned and climate-ready water and energy systems. We must also commit to a permanent moratorium on shutoffs and ensuring that rates are perennially affordable. 

When the pandemic recedes, we need a Green Stimulus that puts millions to work improving our inadequate water and energy infrastructure and transitioning to renewable sources.  

The first source of vulnerability is affordability. Many Americans were already hard-pressed to pay their energy and water bills before this crisis. In 2018, 31 percent of U.S. households had a hard time paying their energy bills. Similarly, water costs are increasing to the point that more than one-third of the U.S. will not be able to pay their water bills by 2022. 

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Brullard says that unemployment could soar to 30 percent during the second quarter of this year as a result of emergency epidemic measures, dramatically worsening the burden of utility costs across the country. High bills are even more deadly in the context of a public health crisis. In the summer of 2018, a New Jersey resident who was behind on paying her bill died when the private utility company shut off the electricity that powered her ventilator. 

A few states have enacted a temporary moratorium on utility disconnects and late fees, with some utilities committing in varying degrees to stopping shutoffs. A letter signed by over 600 community and nonprofit leaders called on governors, utility commissioners and other lawmakers for a blanket end to the shutoffs. Chandra Farley, the Just Energy Director at the Partnership for Southern Equity, said, “The resulting utility burdens on black, brown and indigenous communities and people of color are being amplified by this crisis, with no long-term economic relief strategy in place.” 

As it stands now, utilities will be relieved of their duty to provide service regardless of ability to pay at the “end” of the crisis. We need a more fundamental change: a permanent federal moratorium on shutoffs that preserves the rights of all residents to basic services and relieves the pressure on those with the highest energy burden — low-income ratepayers. A “Percent Income Payment Plan” would guarantee that no household pays more than 5 percent of their income on basic services. 

The climate crisis is also colliding head-on with these long-standing vulnerabilities to our energy and water systems, testing our brittle, fossil-fueled power plants, transmission lines, waterworks and sanitation systems. 

An ever-worsening hurricane season starts in a matter of weeks. New wildfires will likely start in late spring. Much of California has not yet recovered from last year’s fires, sparked by Pacific Gas & Electric’s negligence and commitment to shareholder profits, which disproportionately hurt the medically vulnerable, immigrant and low-income communities. Interfaith Ministries in Houston is already starting to plan their senior meals program around the double burden, “In case the virus impacts our deliveries, our seniors will [have] access to emergency food now that they can also use during hurricane season if needed,” writes Maria Magee.

Across the country, investor-owned energy utilities have fought tooth-and-nail to protect their investments in fossil fuel infrastructure instead of transitioning to renewable energy. They have lobbied and captured regulators to approve rate hikes and shied away from paying for their pollution. Similarly, private water utilities have hiked rates demonstrably without making the critical infrastructure investments needed to handle the new extremes brought on by climate change.  

This history of disinvestment and inequality in the utility sector has spurred new campaigns for public power and public water systems designed for people instead of profit. In New York (now a hotbed for COVID-19 cases), a campaign favoring a public takeover of the private utility system mobilized last summer when massive heat waves hit New York and ConEdison cut off energy from lower-income areas of Brooklyn to keep the lights on elsewhere. In new footage from the blacked-out community, one resident exclaimed, “So what? We’re not important enough? Like, we’re supposed to sit in the dark while you what? Who is going to be protected? Who are they protecting?”

The only way to confront our ailing infrastructure is through public investment that ensures clean and affordable water and energy as a human right to every resident. Given the looming economic crisis, such a plan would achieve multiple goals at once: it would reduce the utility burden on households, in effect boosting household income; it would provide for millions of unionized jobs in construction, maintenance and servicing; it would make our energy and water systems resilient in the face of climate change; and it would usher in a transition to renewable energy — a key sector that could absorb yet more workers and provide for dignified livelihoods. 

The Green Stimulus proposal — which we helped author — put forward on March 24 and endorsed by over a thousand climate and social policy experts begins to do just that. 

But we can’t expect private utilities driven by the logic of profits or cash-starved public utilities to embark on such an ambitious program. Instead, we need democratically governed, public utilities with an economic, social and environmental mission to take on this necessary transformation.

Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of political science at Providence College. She is a co-author of the book “A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.” Johanna Bozuwa is co-director of the climate and energy program at The Democracy Collaborative. 

Tags access to water Basic needs Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 electric utilities energy bills Moratorium water insecurity
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