Extreme heat is turning blackouts into a new political crisis for energy companies

A window air conditioner unit is seen on the side of an apartment building in Arlington, Virginia, July 10, 2023.

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If you’re in Virginia choking and behind on your utility bill, you’ll have an extra chance to keep your air conditioner humming, but not until July 1st. That’s when Virginia joins the small but growing ranks of states protecting shutdowns during extreme heat. Such protections have been around cold weather for decades, but as global temperatures rise to record highs, advocates say more needs to be done to protect customers from service outages; often, the existing legislation is not enough.

Virginia State Senator Lashrecse Aird, (D-Petersburg), a legislative sponsor of the state’s new utility bill law, said her support for the legislation was rooted in her experience of disconnecting utilities when she was younger. “It was not a pleasant experience,” Aird said. “And I carry it with me.”

Now, she says, the stakes are higher.

“We have to account for extreme heat outside of the normal months of the year that are increasingly hot now,” Aird said. “As long as we continue to fail to address climate change and rising temperatures, we need to be intentional and purposeful,” she said, adding that this means the need for protective laws. “Our country is on fire; the world is on fire. I predict we’re going to see more countries experiencing heat crises and heat emergencies. We need to have these policies in place; that’s where we’re going from a clear weather perspective.”

The Virginia law, which Aird said the utilities “fought tooth and nail,” prohibits disconnections when the temperature exceeds 92 degrees. Regardless of the temperature, the bill also prohibits power companies from shutting down services on Fridays, holidays, public holidays or the days immediately preceding a public holiday. Such outages can leave someone without power for an extended period while the utility’s customer service office is closed.

“We had to write them down because we found that’s what was happening,” Aird said. “They didn’t want the state to determine their process for reconnection. Everyone has a different administrative structure.”

A bleak national view of power protection

Many states do not have protections against utility company disconnects for consumers, according to David Konisky, a professor in Indiana’s environmental studies department. University and director of the Energy Law Lab, and he says climate change is forcing a new conversation on the issue.

The Energy Law Lab created an “Outage Dashboard” that shows utility disconnection data in each state (not every state reports data) and existing shutdown protection legislation, if any, in effect. Part of making the dashboard was overlaying forecast days of excess heat along with what protections do or don’t exist and factoring in climate change. The outlook is bleak, Konisky says. Nearly three million people have their electricity cut off each year because they can’t afford to pay their monthly bills, according to the Energy Justice Lab.

“There are two ways to think about it: how hot is it going to be today, yes, but what’s really dangerous is when it doesn’t cool down at night, when you have a continuous period of warm nights, when people are not in condition. to cool their bodies, then you have high incidences of heat exhaustion,” Konisky said, adding that the lack of cooling like air conditioning makes it worse.

Legislation like Virginia’s is welcome, but often, laws don’t go far enough, according to Konisky. They are usually limited to state-regulated energy companies (Virginia is more expansive than other states) or have subjective or vague disconnection criteria. Konisky says utility customers should work with them instead of being cut off.

Covid-19 led many states to issue temporary orders during stay-at-home mandates to require power to remain on, but most of those orders have been phased out. According to the Energy Law Lab, most states (40) have statutory utility disconnection protections that cover specific times of the year and vulnerable populations.

As of 2021, 29 states had seasonal protections and 23 had temperature-based shutdown protections, but Konisky’s research shows that these do not completely ban shutdowns, often putting the onus on customers to demonstrate eligibility for an exemption, such as medical necessity. Most states (46), plus Washington DC, give customers the option to set up a payment plan as an alternative to disconnection, although interest can be high and income-based repayment is often not an option.

Power lines in Hyattsville, Maryland, U.S., Monday, June 17, 2024. While summer doesn’t officially start until Thursday, across the U.S. more than 120 daily high temperature records could be broken or tied, with most of them in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and New England, the US Weather Prediction Center said.

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“A lot can be done to make energy more affordable where a shutdown is necessary,” Konisky said. “There is creative rate making, payment structures. They should be more aggressive in offering payment plans, as opposed to closing, helping customers access energy assistance. There are many activities that would be advisable and preferably before we engage in lockdown practices that could have dire consequences for people.”

His research shows that power companies disconnect a lot during warm weather. Using publicly available data, he found that Indiana customers, for example, experienced 50,000 outages between June and August 2023. “So they’re occurring during very warm months,” Konisky said. “This situation is likely to get worse, especially in states where historically we wouldn’t have to worry about this in the summer.”

Heat dome conditions hit more states

One of the states where, historically, you wouldn’t have to worry as much about the heat is Oregon. But don’t tell that to residents bracing for 90-degree days this week. When Brandi Tuck, executive director of the Portland-based social services organization Path Home, moved to Oregon 20 years ago, the state was known for its temperate climate with mild winters and cool summers. Not any more.

“We never heard the term ‘heat dome,'” Tuck said, referring to a once-obscure meteorological term that has morphed into a new term for a heat wave.

“As climate change happens, we’re getting hotter and hotter summers, and here we have heat domes. We had one last summer that resulted in death; it gets intense,” Tuck said. In 2021, Portland hit 117 degrees during a wild heat wave. On the other end of the spectrum, Tuck said Oregon is experiencing longer and colder winters. Oregon has laws in place to protect utility customers during cold snaps, but not during heat waves. “The challenge is that we’ve commoditized the necessities of life. We’re a first-world developing country, but we’ve commoditized things like energy, air conditioning and lighting,” Tuck said.

Path Home often helps those facing impending power outages. Power outages in rental properties, Tuck says, are often followed by evictions, and utility assistance is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent homelessness. As Oregon’s weather fluctuates, Tuck says energy companies can’t depend on the police themselves.

“We need legislation,” Tuck said.

Disconnections hit lower-income people disproportionately hard, and people who are already struggling to pay their utility bills are often charged a “reconnection fee” or deposit after an outage. In Ohio, for example, the utility may require you to pay a deposit of up to one month’s estimated fees plus 30%.

These costs can be a problem for those who disconnect. Felix Russo, pastor of New Life Mission in Hamilton, Ohio, says that by the time people in need come to him to help with their services, they’re usually days away from a power outage. Russo then calls the power companies and tries to negotiate on the person’s behalf or tries to connect them with a social service agency that can provide funding. But it’s an uphill battle. “All our systems are strained,” Russo said.

Businesses say power cuts ‘a last resort’

Energy companies insist that shutdowns are a last resort and that additional legislation and regulations are not needed.

“We understand that our customers may face financial hardship throughout the year, so I want to be clear that disconnecting customers for non-payment is an absolute last resort,” said Aaron Ruby, manager of media relations for Dominion. Energy, Virginia’s leading energy supplier. He said Dominion has multiple bill-paying assistance options to help customers avoid outages, including budget billing, extended payment plans, EnergyShare bill-paying assistance and home weatherization programs. The EnergyShare program, for example, Ruby said, offers up to $600 a year in heating assistance and $300 a year in cooling assistance to eligible customers.

Ruby said Dominion Energy has already begun complying with the new law, allaying fears that they would begin a rush of disconnections before July 1.

“Disconnections for non-payment were suspended on Tuesday and Wednesday in respect of June 19 and we will continue to monitor the forecast for the next heat wave,” said Ruby, adding that they will respect the new law. “We will comply with the law and suspend payment-related outages in parts of our service area where temperatures are forecast to reach 92 degrees or higher.”

A spokesman for Charlotte-based Duke Energy, the nation’s second-largest utility, said it has “longstanding policies to temporarily suspend disconnection of customer service for non-payment to help protect our customers,” in days when the weather is expected to be extremely hot or extremely cold. Duke monitors extreme weather events such as hurricanes or winter storms, evaluates them on a case-by-case basis, and temporarily suspends disconnection for non-payment.

From Virginia lawmaker Aird’s perspective, the legislation is needed not only for the consumer, but also to protect the energy companies from themselves, a point she made in the strongest terms. “Your goal at the end of the day is to have a customer and give someone the ability to pay; if they’re dead, then the power company doesn’t have a customer.”

The new legislation doesn’t go far enough to ensure people’s safety in extreme weather, according to Aird, but it was a good first step. “We erred on the side of something is better than nothing,” Aird said.

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