Utility Shutoffs Are Keeping Struggling Californians in the Dark
By Anne Price, President
Energy is a basic need in a modern economy — some would even argue that uninterrupted energy service and electric power is a fundamental human right. Yet we are witnessing a growing energy crisis that has significant economic and health implications for struggling Californians — utility shutoffs.
In California, nearly 894,000 households live with income at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty level ($10,210 for a family of three) and spend about 25 percent of their income just on utilities. That is five times the 5 percent spent by higher-income households (185–200 percent of the poverty level) for electricity, heating, and cooling. Blacks, Latinos, and renters in multifamily buildings tend to face the highest energy burdens. Make no mistake, this is an economic and racial justice issue.
Home energy is an expense that fluctuates widely and can create a nearly insurmountable financial burden for those who are already juggling household expenses. As a result, last year, utility service was cut off in 868,000 California households — representing 2.5 million people, mostly children, and marking a staggering 60% increase from the 547,000 households that experienced utility shutoffs in 2010.
Changing climate conditions paired with energy rate hikes are wreaking further havoc on families with limited and fixed incomes. Heat waves are more intense in California and last longer. Last year was the hottest year to date on record, and January 2017 was the third hottest January ever recorded.
At the same time, electricity rates were raised three times in the past year, making energy rates for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) customers an average of 21 percent higher than they were a year ago. And depending on PG&E’s potential culpability in the North Bay fires, consumers could face additional rate hikes to cover the costs of the damage. These kinds of rapidly successive price jumps are too much to handle for many families, and they further limit the impact of assistance programs that are already insufficient.
In this month’s Hidden Truths podcast, we feature Dr. Gabriela Sandoval, Research Director for the End Shutoffs Campaign at The Utility Reform Network (TURN), an organization tackling the housing and public health impact of utility disconnections. Gabriela highlights two action areas that could foster much needed systemic change for utility consumers.
First, we must counter the dominant narrative around utility shutoffs that often solely places the blame for disconnections on families who are barely scraping by. Families facing the highest energy burdens often lack efficiencies in housing, such as appropriate insulation and modern, efficient heating units and appliances. Yet many people believe that those who cannot keep up with their monthly utility bills are simply not disciplined enough, not taking enough personal responsibility, and deserve their poverty.
We know that these harmful and inaccurate narratives about struggling families and communities of color undermine support for public policies to address energy poverty and are a key driver of economic exclusion. We must have a more nuanced discussion that considers the very real challenges these families face, including the broader structural factors of the utility market.
Along these lines, we must also address unfair utility practices that further impoverish families and trap them in debt. For example, some Californians who move into apartments cannot get connected or are being unjustly threatened with a shutoff unless they pay a previous tenant’s past due bill, which is a clear violation. People for whom English is a second language and those who are just getting by are particularly vulnerable to this harmful practice.
We need to address issues like these now to eliminate chronic energy insecurity and utility debt accumulation. Climate shifts, stagnant wages, and rising housing costs are three trends on a collision course that will only exacerbate this crisis going forward.
Thankfully, the State of California took an important step this year in attempting to curb disconnections. Governor Brown signed into the law the Shutoffs Reduction Act, setting a benchmark to reduce disconnections and identifying the impact of any proposed rate increases on disconnections. The new law also prohibits shutoffs among people with life-threatening medical conditions.
While the full impact of this policy change remains to be seen, there is still more to be done, and these challenges extend far beyond California, affecting families across the country.
Focusing on practical, people-centered ways to limit and end disconnections is a critical, immediate action we can pursue to help people keep the lights on, stay in their homes, and support their health and wellbeing.
Winter is coming, and we all deserve to be warm.