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LIGHTS OUT

Bans on electricity shutoffs for 76 million Americans are being lifted

REUTERS/Darren Staples
Utilities are going to start disconnecting customers again.
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate reporter

After the coronavirus left 14 million people unemployed in the United States, officials in 32 states passed moratoriums preventing utilities from shutting off customers’ power. Scores of utilities announced their own voluntary moratoriums.

These restrictions are now expiring. By Oct. 1, 76 million people will see shutoff moratoriums lifted in their states. That’s putting nearly 10 million households below the poverty line at risk, according to Carbon Switch, a home energy efficiency firm that analyzed unemployment insurance claims in states without a shut-off moratorium.

Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 9.5 million unemployed workers live in those states where power shutoffs will be lifted.

It’s hard to say how bad things are: States are not required to publish data on shutoff rates. But in a few hard-hit states, such as North Carolina, as many as a third of residents are already behind in their electricity payments, according to data from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC; pdf). Some of those more than 1.3 million North Carolina residents may lose power when the state’s shutoff moratorium expires on Sep. 1. Wisconsin is in a nearly identical situation.

Only seven states—California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Wyoming among them—have set no deadline for moratoriums to expire.

Researchers at Indiana University conducted a national survey in May suggesting about 13% of low-income households in the US were unable to pay an energy bill in April and 4% of households, or about 800,000 people nationally, had their electric utility service disconnected. Black and Hispanic households and families with young children were the hardest hit.

Programs do exist to help. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low-income households pay utility bills, and Congress earmarked $900 million in additional funds in the CARES Act. But even with the cash infusion, the program covers less than 25% of those who qualify for it.

Some utilities have established extended repayment plans for customers without a job or savings who are facing thousands of dollars in unpaid utility bills. Duke Energy in South Carolina, which says it will start disconnections on Oct. 12, is promoting the federal energy bill assistance, and offering to defer payments. “The company has been reaching out to customers behind on their bills to offer payment plans,” the company said in a statement. “We are actively working with customers to prevent the disconnection of electric service.”

But despite these efforts, few know about them. In North Carolina, for example, only 43,302, or 3%, of customers have signed up for extended payment programs since April, according to the PUC.

Congress is considering a fix. A relief bill passed by House Democrats in May offered utility bill relief and imposed a nation-wide moratorium on electricity disconnections. But it remains in limbo after a Senate GOP proposal excluded those measures.

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