States let utility companies shut off power just as winter arrives

Millions of U.S. residents behind on bills risk having their electricity, heating, and ability to cook a hot meal cut off on December 22 by private utility companies, just a day after the solstice heralds the descent of the states the coldest in the real cold of winter. During the first months of the pandemic, 34 states issued a power outage moratoriums, protecting residents facing economic hardship from turning off their lights and water due to late payment for utilities. Since December 2021, 32 of these states let these protections expire.

New York and New Jersey, where elected officials have repeatedly extended the deadlines, are the recalcitrant. But each state’s moratorium is expected to expire before the end of the year, just when taxpayers are more late payments than ever before: In November 2021, Empire State taxpayers alone owed a huge sum $ 2 billion to energy giants such as National Grid and Con Edison.

The impending power cuts come just as public health officials warn that the newer and most infectious COVID-19 variant was detected in the majority of the American states. According to a work document According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, previous moratoria on shutting down public services reduced infections by more than 4% and death rates by more than 7%. Had Congress put in place a national moratorium on utility cuts between March and November 2020, COVID-related deaths could have been reduced by almost 15 percent.

Amber Johnson is the Director of Organization and Training at the New York Energy Democracy Alliance (NYEDA). She says that utility default and the accumulation of overdue balances, called arrears, are much more common than people realize.

“If you’re late on your bills, you think it’s just you, right? ” she said truth. Corn 1.2 million households and more than 128,000 companies in New York State are at least 60 days behind on energy bills, according to monthly reports submitted to the New York State Department of the Public Service and analyzed by the Alliance for an Economy green (APPROVED).

“We are in a utility debt crisis,” Johnson said. On average, residential households in debt with utilities in New York owed $ 1,347, which contributes to about 35 to 40 billion dollars in all 50 states.

It’s not a new problem. Utility debt is in fact ubiquitous and a slice of an astonishing US $ 15 trillion in US household debt. But it got worse during the pandemic. In all, according to report by New York Focus, New York’s household debt rose 119% between February 2020 and September 2021, with hundreds of thousands of closing notices sent in November.

As Johnson points out, low-income communities and communities of color are particularly susceptible to indebtedness and closures for reasons of systemic injustice. Due to historically racist housing policies, black families are more likely to live in energy-intensive housing stock, depending on coming soon to research to appear in the review Energy research and social sciences.

Ebony Jackson is a community leader and small business owner in Binghamton, New York. As a single mom, covering her expenses is a constant challenge. But utility payments are the tipping point. “This is really the crux of my poverty,” she told producers of a short film played during the Utility Justice Film Festival in February 2021.

The last house Jackson rented was old and leaking. The foundation was sagging, creating cracks and a draft interior. Plus, there weren’t even storm windows. Her owner knew this, she said, but he intended to sell the house, so he didn’t want to invest in the repairs. At one point, she owed her utility company, New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG) more than $ 3,000.

Energy executives and officials have added fuel to the fire, exacerbating existing debt like Jackson’s by continuing to propose and approve rate hikes as the pandemic continues. A NYSEG rate hike, applied retroactively from April 2020 to 2023, increases the average household bill by more than 9 percent.

“This is a reasonable result for taxpayers,” Civil Service Commissioner John Howard said to USA Today Network in New York, noting that the agency approved a lower tariff increase than requested by the utility.

To help drive up the debt, online self-help groups across the country, such as @mutualaidmamas, @blackwomenexhale and @dsm_mutual_aid have been busy channeling aid from public services to those who need it most.

The federal government offers the Home Energy Assistance Program, but the application process is cumbersome and does not go far enough. In 2019, approximately a third of eligible households in New York City did not receive assistance. Some states have also got involved in a notable way. In California, for example, a statewide arrears management plan sets aside $ 1 billion in funding to help with utility debt. Notably, and unlike many state programs, eligible residents do not need to apply – assistance is automatically credited to accounts.

For those who are behind on bills, says Avni Pravin, deputy director of policy at AGREE, it’s critical that residents respond to closure notices, as utilities are required to establish a payment plan with customers. Pravin also offers to contact the New York Public Utility Law Project, which provides training on utility rights, helps residents seek help, and files complaints on behalf of taxpayers.

But as crucial as they are to supporting residents facing the immediate existential threat of heat loss during the colder months, one-time financial support and legal advice provide little coverage in the medium to long term.

“It’s part of a larger system of reluctance to do anything about unaffordable energy,” Pravin said.

That’s why in New York, dozens of groups are calling on Governor Kathy Hochul and members of the State Assembly to pass emergency legislation ordering the Civil Service Commission to write off all public service debts and cover costs using returns from shareholders of public services. the letter also calls for an extended two-year moratorium on all public service cuts.

While there is no precedent for a comprehensive statewide utility debt cancellation program, New York City has a reputation for being a leader on energy and climate. In 2019, the state adopted the the most ambitious climate legislation at state level in the country, demanding that its electricity sector be emissions-free by 2040. An executive act mandating the cancellation of public service debt would build on this legislation, as advocates describe the treatment of utility debt as a prerequisite for deploying equity-focused types of renewable energy programs. in the state history climate law.

Energy justice groups are also pushing for legislation that would guide the shift from private power generation and distribution capacity to more democratically managed public systems. Bills such as the Build Public Renewables Act would help by requiring that the state’s largest utility be the sole supplier of state and municipal-owned buildings and that it source exclusively renewable energy.

In the absence of such legislation, explained Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator for the nonprofit Sane Energy project, private and public funds paid to utility companies are often used to fund projects that threaten the health and climate resilience of the communities that host them. Like VICE News reported, in August 2021, the Civil Service Commission voted 7-0 to approve a tariff hike affecting 1.9 million people, of which $ 129 million was allocated to the construction of National Grid’s North Brooklyn pipeline, who faced strong community opposition.

“This is why people go into debt to pay,” Ziesche said. Truth. “They are going into debt to pay for a fractured gas pipeline that they said they didn’t want to build in their community.”

It is not uncommon. A 2021 Rocky Mountain Institute report found that gas utilities pass on the cost of constructing new pipelines and lines to customers by up to hundreds of millions a year, which locks in the use of fossil gas for decades to come.

Josue De Luna Navarro is the author of a recent report published by the Institute for Policy Studies which outlines a public energy roadmap for New Mexico. As Navarro writes, one of the biggest advantages of the public ownership model is that the income is available to reinvest in community visions, rather than to fund what companies dictate, like more fossil gas builds. . And that means building the wealth of the community. Over the 25-year lifespan of a local solar project, for example, $ 5.4 million according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, electricity spending is pumped back into local pockets.

In addition, public energy would likely reduce bills. In Nebraska, which is currently the only state in United States with 100 percent state-owned energy infrastructure, residents pay at least 15 percent less than the national average for the energy they use. In short, public ownership transforms access to energy “from a for-profit service to a basic human right,” Navarro writes.

Back in New York, the utility debt crisis and the delay in the rapid transition to renewables are the result of policies that favor private ownership, said Patrick Robbins, NYEDA coordinator. “If people really have control over our energy system and we make decisions about the basic resource that affects all of our lives, then you would be talking about a system that is not run just for the benefit of a small child. handful of wealthy shareholders, ”Robbins said. “We would be talking about something that benefits everyone. “

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