It Makes No Sense to Shut Off Utilities Mid-Pandemic. We Can Do Better | Opinion

Amid record heat and wildfires, rolling blackouts affected millions of Californians last week. But millions more low-income households in California and nationwide face loss of service for a different reason. Their electric bills have gone up in the pandemic, and they can't pay them. Utilities want to collect, and are demanding an end to moratoria on shut-offs.

As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, vulnerable households are anxiously waiting for Congress to restore unemployment benefits, provide another round of stimulus checks, and protect them from evictions. But when and if Congress agrees on a new relief package, there's still the problem of how to protect them from losing their electricity.

When the pandemic lockdown began, the initial impact on energy was to lower demand as businesses closed, and demand has stayed low in the EU, where it remains below 10 percent below pre-COVID levels. But in the US, energy demand rebounded quickly, along with a dramatic shift toward residential energy use.

Across the US, average household electric bills could rise 15-30% this summer compared to last year (i.e., on top of the normal seasonal increase due to peak air conditioning demand). Hot states, many of which are also COVID-19 hotspots, are near the top of that range. In Florida and Texas, for example, July's electric bill could be 29 percent higher than last year.

This is inconvenient for anyone coping with continued economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. But for vulnerable people and disadvantaged communities in the U.S., the increases are even steeper, and pose a real threat. For example, disadvantaged households in California's Central Valley have seen their residential electric bills rise by a whopping 50 percent or more since the state's shelter-in-place order took effect.

Nationally the potential overall increase in electricity bills for U.S. residential electricity customers in disadvantaged communities this year is estimated to be $174 million, or an average of $441 for low-income families. They can't afford that in the teeth of the COVID crisis, and neither can the communities they live in. When households spend a disproportionate amount of their income on their utility bills, they spend even less on local businesses.

As the summer heats up and home energy use increases, we need to alleviate the burden. Just as the federal government is acknowledging the need to help households with lost income, utilities and public utility commissions need to step up to help disadvantaged families keep the lights and internet on.

Some utilities, like PG&E and some state agencies like Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) have implemented shutoff protection programs and temporary payments on past-due customer accounts. But it's going to take more than temporary or piecemeal measures to solve the problem. We need a robust, flexible plan that covers the following bases—

Bill Foresight and Transparency: Customers need not suffer sticker shock when they open their monthly bill. Simple alerts on electricity bills can alert them when their usage is on track to exceed last year's. Increased costs can be flagged a week into the billing cycle.

Payment leniency: Simple measures such as waived late fees, deferred and flexible payment plans, and no negative credit reporting, will help cushion increased bills.

Payment assistance: Special relief funds should be made available to every impacted or low-income household in the US that can't pay their utility bills. We can start by expanding eligibility for existing low-income rate plans and programs like the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and similar state programs.

Zero-cost energy programs: We can also do more to educate customers about zero-cost programs that reduce energy costs, such as conservation methods and peak time rebates.

Special access to technologies that enable smarter and more cost-effective use of household energy. Household appliances such as window air conditioners and refrigerators can be plugged into simple wifi-enabled "smart plugs," for example, in order to allow families to control their energy use and save money on their utility bills.

Low-income households need electricity to care for loved ones, stay connected, look for work, and weather the COVID crisis. It's self-defeating to spend trillions on federal pandemic relief without protecting them from loss of service. For about 0.006% of what Congress proposes to spend on the next relief package, we can do it.

Cisco DeVries is CEO of OhmConnect, California's leading clean energy program. He formerly served as aide to the U.S. Secretary of Energy chief of staff to the Mayor of Berkeley, and designed one of the most successful clean energy products, "Property Assessed Clean Energy" (PACE), which won the Scientific American World Changing Idea Award and is implemented in over 20 states.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.