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Millions risk losing power without nationwide shutoff moratorium

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State emergency orders that have protected tens of millions of Americans from electricity shutoffs start expiring today, Sept. 1.  

The coronavirus continues to sicken and kill thousands of people every day, and unemployment rates in some states remain at Great Depression-era levels. 

Meanwhile, the climate emergency is raging. Climate-fueled Hurricane Laura, western wildfires and record heat waves ravage the country. Living without electricity and air conditioning in these circumstances can be fatal.

People at the epicenter of the COVID-19 and climate emergencies are also at the center of the country’s longest-running crisis: racism. 

Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other communities of color are disproportionately affected by both the coronavirus and the recession it’s spawned, and they’re at greater risk of losing electricity. These greater energy burdens stem from historical Jim Crow housing laws and other institutional discriminatory practices documented by the NAACP

The fight for energy justice is thus a fight for climate and racial justice, too.

Despite these compounding conditions, Congress has yet to pass a nationwide utility shutoff moratorium. 

Since spring the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, has mobilized with more than 830 organizations and 113 members of Congress to demand that a nationwide utility shutoff moratorium be included in the next coronavirus relief package. 

The HEROES Act, passed by the House in May, includes utility shutoff safeguards but fails to provide enough funding to protect families from crippling debt accumulation. In the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have championed the shutoff moratorium as a redline in negotiations.  

Yet Senate Republicans are withholding relief that’s desperately needed to sustain not only electricity, but also the basic necessities of water and broadband service. Republicans also refused to extend the federal safeguard against evictions, which expired Monday. 

Ensuring basic human rights shouldn’t be partisan. But on Capitol Hill, it is.  

Without a federal moratorium on utility shutoffs, families are falling through the gaps in a patchwork of state protections implemented since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. 

Our organization’s analysis found that nearly 60 percent of states approved moratoriums to prevent electricity shutoffs after COVID-19 began closing down the country. But those protections have waned as states prematurely lift restrictions. 

Tens of millions of households are now at risk of losing power.

Today, shutoff protections are ending for utility customers in North Carolina, New Mexico and Tennessee. More state protections expire in mid-September. By Oct. 1, just six states and the nation’s capital will have safeguards to prevent families from losing electricity.

A June survey by Indiana University found that 22 percent of respondents went without or reduced household needs like medicine or food to pay energy bills, while 9 percent had received a utility shutoff notice and 4 percent had their power disconnected. 

In North Carolina, an estimated 2.5 million people, or one in three households, are now at risk of disconnection due to inability to pay. Other states have yet to require or receive data from corporate utilities that would document the scale of this crisis.  

The squeeze on families doesn’t stop there. Corporate utilities are even seeking to penalize people for the pandemic.

State energy commissions are considering dozens of regulatory bids from investor-owned utilities to increase rates on their captured customers, in part to mollify investors as the fossil-fuel economy falters and to recoup pandemic-related costs, including for energy customers didn’t even use. 

Meanwhile, these corporations keep sinking more money into fossil fuels and fighting clean energy solutions. 

Instead of increasing the burden on families already struggling to pay their bills, monopoly corporate utilities — and the state regulators overseeing them — should recover costs from within, including from shareholders. 

There are deep wells to draw from. Last year the average compensation for utility CEOs was approximately $11 million, according to the Energy and Policy Institute. Altogether in 2019, top utility executives amassed $450 million, which could pay the electric bills of more than 4 million households for a month, using calculations from a recent Vote Solar study. 

But even tapping company coffers and passing a temporary federal moratorium are stopgap measures that won’t solve our chronic energy crisis. 

In non-COVID-19 times, at least 1 million families lose their electricity every year, and they’re disproportionately families of color. Communities are forced to pay for monopoly utilities’ addiction to fossil fuels and the personal health tolls and climate disaster recovery costs that accumulate as a result. 

The coronavirus didn’t create a new energy problem; it shone a bright light on the cracks in our existing energy system and widened them.

Energy justice is climate justice is racial justice. It’s time to press the reset button.

Jean Su is the energy justice director and an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Follow her on Twitter @ajeansu.

Tags Chuck Schumer Congress COVID-19 electric utilities Electricity income inequality Jeff Merkley Moratorium public power utilities racial inequity Sherrod Brown Stimulus Package utilities moratorium utility shutoffs

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