Last week, the polar vortex resulted in millions of Texans losing power for extended periods of time. After three days, approximately hundreds of thousands of residents were without electricity and faced freezing temperatures in their homes with more severe weather rolling in.
With each passing day, we learned more grim details. There were reports that marginalized communities were some of the first to face outages and were especially hard hit by the conditions. And there were reports that many suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning due to the use of ovens or running cars for warmth, while others literally froze to death from the harsh conditions.
These horrific events are unthinkable, but not uncommon. Millions of Americans face similar conditions all across the United States on a daily basis. Our country has a severe and growing problem of energy insecurity.
Energy insecurity is a term used to describe the state of not being able to pay one’s energy bill or not having access to affordable energy services. One source estimates that, as of 2015, 14 million households each year struggle to pay their energy bills and 2 million are disconnected by their energy service provider.
We have tracked rates of energy insecurity among low-income households over the course of the pandemic and found that, just within the first month of the pandemic, 2.4 million households were unable to pay their energy bills and almost a million households had their power shut off. Within a few months of the pandemic, these rates got worse.
The Texas electricity blackout is a catastrophe many years in the making from under-investment and under-appreciation of the fragility of our infrastructure, but it also shines a light on the more chronic problem of energy insecurity. Like many other problems in the U.S., energy insecurity is characterized by enormous racial and income disparities. Research shows that households of color are significantly more likely to be energy insecure than white households. An African American household, for example, is over three times more likely to be disconnected from electricity or gas service than a white household and a Hispanic household is six times more likely than a white household.
Similarly, low-income households are much more likely to be energy insecure than high-income households, a phenomena at least partially explained by the quality of housing conditions. A household that has thin walls and little insulation will likely pay more as a percentage of income on energy and will be more exposed — and vulnerable — to inclement weather.
Strategies for staying warm in the absence of electricity can have dire consequences. Households that suffer from energy insecurity tend to use space heaters for warmth, which can be a fire hazard. In more extreme but not rare conditions, households may use an open oven for warmth or burn trash in a canister within the home. Or they may sit in the car with the doors closed and the heat blasting, or in a laundry room with the dryer vent disconnected. Recent events in Texas demonstrate that these coping mechanisms can lead to tragic losses of life.
Energy insecurity poses other risks to households as well. When a family cannot afford to keep the heat on, or avoid utility disconnection, children are at risk of being removed from the home by child services on account of neglect. Without electricity, a household is also not able to keep perishable food or power e-learning devices for those children that are schooling from home during the pandemic. The financial implications of energy disconnections are also problematic. Utilities often charge extra fees for disconnection and reconnection, thereby increasing the financial burden faced by energy insecure households.
There is one major difference between the terrible conditions that impacted Texas and the ongoing, equally terrible, energy insecurity pandemic happening across the country: the federal government declared the conditions in Texas a national emergency and guaranteed that resources and support will funnel to those in need. Those who suffer from chronic energy insecurity on a daily basis, however, are not provided with such dedicated support, nor are the conditions they face recognized as a national priority. The government provides bill assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, but this program is woefully underfunded — reaching less than 20 percent of the eligible population — and the funds are often exhausted well before the late winter months within a calendar year.
Taking on the problem of chronic energy insecurity will require massive investment in the social safety net through programs like LIHEAP. But, just as importantly, this week’s disaster in Texas reminds us that we need to redefine affordable energy access as a basic right, not as a privilege for those with the means to afford it.
Sanya Carley and David Konisky are professors at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington.