Utility Shut-Offs, Summer Heat, and COVID-19: A Dangerous Trifecta in the Southeast

In the South, summer is synonymous with intense, sweltering heat. Now, in arguably the hottest part of the summer, and with no end in sight to the global health pandemic, low- and moderate-income Southerners suffering from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis are dually threatened by utility shutoffs.

Amy Vaden and Amy Rawe | August 25, 2020 | Climate Change, Extreme Weather, Utilities

The summer of 2020 has already hit record-breaking temperatures across the Southern U.S., compounding the ongoing complexities from disproportionately high energy bills in our region. So many of us are also being forced to deal with decreased income as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – at the same time that we are staying home exponentially more than normal and depending on electric air conditioners to make the situation bearable, or even livable. These factors coalesce to create a potentially very dangerous scenario.

For example, an estimated 31,000 Memphis residents with unpaid bills to Memphis Light Gas & Water (MLGW) were disconnected on  August 24, the first disconnections MLGW has implemented since March. As temperatures are forecast to reach 90 and above, these residents are without electricity and water. According to a representative at MLGW, every 15 minutes nearly 400 more customers are scheduled to be disconnected from their utility services for unpaid bills.

Early on in the pandemic, as citizens were urged to stay home, SACE signed on with 575+ other groups to demand our Governors STOP all power and water shut-offs and invest in distributed renewable energy to lower customers’ bills and equitable payment systems for the future. Numerous utility providers and states suspended utility shutoffs for nonpayment of bills during the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis to offer suddenly unemployed Americans some economic relief. These common-sense actions are a testament to the idea that no one should be forced to go without electricity because they are suffering economic fallout resulting from a global pandemic, something so far beyond an individual’s control.

Take Action to Suspend Utility Disconnections during COVID-19

But now, in August 2020, arguably the hottest part of the summer, and with no end in sight to the pandemic, many utility providers are resuming shut-offs for nonpayment. Unfortunately, these decisions to backtrack on previous safeguards for customers coincide with extreme summer heat enveloping the South, and, simultaneously, the end of supplemental unemployment benefits.

Energy Insecurity is Nothing New

Energy insecurity did not start with the pandemic. According to a 2015 report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), roughly one in three U.S. households struggled to pay energy bills, and about one in five either reduced or eliminated necessities such as food and medicine in order to pay utility bills, and racial minorities are disproportionately affected. The EIA survey considered 25 million households reporting energy insecurities, and found that approximately 50% of Black households in the U.S. and 40% of Latino households were experiencing energy insecurity. This is a much higher proportion than their white counterparts.

Annie Pearl Patton, a Nashville resident suffering a high energy burden outside of her control, reviews her bill in 2019. Source: ‘Putting a Face on Energy Burden.

A Deeply Rooted Problem

“This isn’t just an issue of not being able to afford energy,says Sanya Carley, an associate professor of public and environmental affairs at the O’Neill School and co-author of “Survey of Household Energy Insecurity in the Time of COVID-19”,

“These issues are so wrapped up into bigger institutional discrimination and biases and other problems, such as housing stock and housing problems.”

Sadly unsurprisingly, those most vulnerable to high bills are also being disproportionately impacted by the ongoing economic impacts from the COVID crisis, and are also those most likely to suffer health and quality of life impacts from the climate crisis. A recent study by Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs showed that 22% of respondents to the survey had to reduce or forgo basic household needs, like medicine or food, to pay an energy bill, and the people most at risk of losing power are Blacks, Latinos, and racial minorities, who are also suffering the highest proportions of job losses as well as deaths from COVID-19. According to a study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All, Black and Latino households were at higher risk for respiratory diseases and stress AND “paid more for utilities per square foot than the average household.

This same population disproportionately suffers from health impacts related to our warming world and pollution, and are more vulnerable to rising temperatures since they statistically live in poorly insulated, inefficient housing, and in hotter neighborhoods. Thanks to longtime, now illegal practices of ‘redlining,’ minority urban neighborhoods measure as much as 5 to 20 degrees hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same cities due to a lack of green spaces that help cool the air but an abundance of heat-radiating paved surfaces, such as nearby highways, asphalt lots, and public housing with little shade.

More than an Inconvenience

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 600 people in the U.S. die as a direct result of extreme heat every year, and that was before we were in the grip of a pandemic. A study by researchers at Boston University and the University of British Columbia published in the Environmental Epidemiology journal estimates the annual number of heat-related deaths may be closer to 5,600, noting that even moderate heatwaves increase the mortality rate. On top of this, extreme heat indirectly contributes to far more deaths in our country each year: in fact the recent New York Times article on redlining (discussed above) cites a study finding, on average, up to 12,000 premature heat-related deaths in the U.S. each year. Add a pandemic and consistently rising temperatures from the effects of global warming and the number of those people at risk is sure to rise.

When customers cannot pay their utility bills, they face not only the threat of having their lights turned out but also of having no reprieve from unbearable—and too often deadly—summer heat here in the South.

Too many low- to middle-income families in the South are familiar with very real physical and economic risks that come from struggling to conserve air conditioning and water usage in order to be able to pay utility bills. And for essential workers who work outdoors, heat exhaustion is a real threat. As another recent article in the New York Times explains,

“Extreme heat is not a future risk. It’s now. It endangers human health, food production, and the fate of entire economies. And it’s worst for those at the bottom of the economic ladder in their societies.”

Utility shutoffs are placing too many low- and moderate-income Southerners on a dangerous collision course where they find themselves facing ongoing economic strife stemming from a global pandemic, leading directly to being unable to pay for the electricity that can literally keep them alive during stifling summer temperatures, which are being exacerbated by the climate crisis. To top it all off, we’re all spending more time at home to curb the spread of COVID-19, further highlighting the need for consistent access to electricity. And for people who either don’t have air conditioning at home or can’t afford to run it, there are fewer public places for them to retreat to get out of the heat. Even if places they might normally go to to find relief, like the mall or library, are open, taking refuge in them isn’t a refuge at all if it increases their risk of exposure to coronavirus.

How are Southern States and Utilities Reacting?

You’re likely wondering if your utility is guilty of this short-sighted decision to resume shut-offs, so we’re including resources and a (non-exhaustive) list of utilities in our region and the approach each is taking:

The most up-to-date tracking of the states and utility providers that have protections against electricity disconnections can be found on a re-post on our blog from the Energy and Policy Institute, including dates when protections are set to expire.

Tennessee is the only one of SACE’s five focus states that still has a government-imposed moratorium on utility shutoffs, although this is currently set to expire August 29. In North Carolina, Governor Cooper’s order expired on July 31, and the North Carolina Utility Commission’s separate order expires on September 1, applying to Duke and Dominion, which are regulated by the Commission. South Carolina’s order also expired on July 26. Georgia Power’s moratorium on disconnects expired on July 15.

Florida is the only SACE focus state to have never had a government-imposed moratorium, but several Florida utilities have enacted their own suspension for disconnections. In central Florida, a few utilities have resumed disconnections for nonpayment, the Orlando Utilities Commission being one of them. In Florida alone, one estimate calculates that a staggering 600,000 households are currently at risk of having their power shut off due to lost wages and economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic during the hottest months of the year.

What Can You Do?

Nearly every state in the country has protections against power shut-offs during the winter months to prevent people from freezing when temperatures dip below a certain point. But very few have protections against shut-offs in the summer when it’s scorching outside. There are even fewer protections during a crisis like the one we’re experiencing. Utilities are a necessity, not a luxury, and people should not have to choose between paying their utility bills or being able to afford groceries, medications, or rent. It’s critical that utilities continue to hold off on service disconnections throughout the crisis, waive late payment fees, reconnect customers that have recently been disconnected due to nonpayment, and commit to investing in bill-lowering measures like energy efficiency and solar energy.

  • Send an email to elected officials in your state and in Congress and urge them to put pressure on utilities to support consistent and comprehensive utility service non-disconnection policies for the duration of the coronavirus crisis so that a growing number of Americans aren’t left without power.
  • Share this letter on social media urging people to call their Senators to demand a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs. On July 30, more than 500 faith leaders called on Congress to pass a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs. The letter is signed by Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, Rabbi Michael Lerner from Beyt Tikkun, the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn of the National Council of Churches, and many other prominent faith leaders and organizations.

Our sights must remain firmly on the future of relying on more affordable, clean energy resources. High electricity bills have been an increasing problem in the South long before the pandemic. Research continually shows that Southeastern states spend the most money on electricity, even though more affordable power resources like solar and wind are vastly underutilized in the region.

The pandemic has magnified the crisis of just how many people struggle with unaffordable utility bills, and it’s a problem that demands a long-term, sustainable solution.

Amy Vaden
Amy Vaden joined SACE as Development & Content Manager in October 2018. She works with SACE’s expert programmatic staff to translate often technical subject matter into compelling prose for readers…
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