Taylor, a single mom who requested that her last name not be used, states that Sevier County Electric Service representatives have repeatedly told her that they would turn off her power if she did not pay by May 22. Sevier County Electric General Manager Allen Robbins stated over the phone on May 14 that the utility suspended all disconnections and late fee accrual on March 18, and plans to keep this in place through at least July 1. According to Robbins, no Sevier County Electric representatives have told customers that their power would be shut off.
But Taylor says she has had a different experience.
“When I called to ask for an extension, they said no, and if the funds weren’t there then they would start the process of shutting it off,” says Taylor. “The response I got was, ‘Well, if we do that for you, then we have to do that for everyone.’ I have a family to take care of. Should I keep my power on, or should I buy groceries for the week? That’s exactly what I’ve been facing for the past month.”
Taylor says that it would be devastating to have her family’s power turned off during the pandemic.
“With there being no school and no day care right now, what would I do?” asks Taylor. “How would I be able to cook? How would I be able to bathe my kids, wash their clothes?
Taylor states that her mother and others in her community have received similar phone calls from the utility.
Sevier County Electric buys power from the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority. Both Tennessee and TVA have yet to issue any sort of moratorium on utility shutoffs. So far, 28 utilities in the Volunteer State have decided not to suspend service disconnections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.On March 27, more than a dozen organizations including Appalachian Voices, the nonprofit organization that produces The Appalachian Voice, called on the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association to urge its member utilities to immediately halt service disconnections and late fees for families during the crisis. The TVPPA represents the municipal utilities and electric cooperatives in the TVA service area. But TVPPA refused, claiming that it would infringe on the “local control” of public utilities.
Energy burden, the percentage of income that people spend on monthly energy bills, is expected to increase for many across the country as incomes drop and time at home rises, leading to increased energy use and higher bills. To help alleviate this, ratepayer advocates including Appalachian Voices are pushing for statewide moratoriums on utility shutoffs and late fee collection.
On May 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, a COVID-19 stimulus package. The bill includes language that would prohibit electricity, gas, telecommunications, broadband, water or sewer shutoffs. It is unlikely that the Senate will hold a vote on this bill, which President Donald Trump dismissed as “dead on arrival.” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that the Senate might consider a COVID-19 stimulus package, albeit one that is much different from the House version.
Until then, mutual aid groups like the First Aid Collective of Knoxville are helping those in need on the front lines.
Even with a moratorium, the resulting debt from not paying utility bills could be overwhelming, according to a recent report from Vote Solar. The report found that after four months of nonpayment, average household debt to utilities would be nearly $1,100.
So far, regulatory bodies in 26 states have enacted various forms of shutoff moratoriums and late fee suspension, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. These vary significantly; some, like Virginia’s, only apply to state-regulated power, gas, water and sewage utilities. Others, like Maryland’s, apply to a broader range of utilities, but only for residential customers.
Several of these orders are set to expire soon. The Virginia State Corporation Commission extended their moratorium from May 15 to June 14. Although Kentucky’s order was set to expire in mid-April, Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order on May 8 suspending all electric, gas, water and wastewater disconnections until further notice.
In West Virginia, the state Public Service Commission ordered all public utilities to suspend disconnections for an undefined amount of time. This request will remain in effect until the state of emergency is lifted or under direction of the commission, according to commission spokesperson.
In March, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio ordered regulated electric, gas, water, wastewater and landline telephone companies to suspend disconnections. Additionally, on March 31, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued an order prohibiting all water utilities in the state from cutting off water service due to nonpayment for the duration of the state of emergency. The Ohio EPA also required companies to reinstate water service to anyone who lost it after Jan. 1, 2020.
A push for a statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs in North Carolina was largely successful when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered a halt to all electric, gas, water and wastewater utility disconnections and late fee collection on March 31. A previous order by the N.C. Utilities Commission applied only to state-regulated utilities. North Carolina’s moratorium ends on May 31, but a coalition of groups including Appalachian Voices are advocating for that to be extended.
Statewide, at least 2,370 residential accounts that were already disconnected prior to the March 31 order have yet to be reconnected, according to data submitted by utilities to the N.C. Utilities Commission. Utilities reconnected only 68 residential electric and gas accounts between April 1 and 25 — and the data only accounts for roughly 20 percent of the state’s utility service providers.
Much of Tennessee is served by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally run electric utility that supplies local power companies.
After visiting 13 communities in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s service area in 2019, Appalachian Voices and other organizations in the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement are putting together a white paper with policy suggestions that would create the changes TVA ratepayers say they want to see. The workshops aimed to find what TVA ratepayers wanted from their public utility and how to reach those goals. Virtual town halls on the policy proposals are expected to start in June.
“In the Tennessee Valley Authority footprint, energy burden is a huge problem,” says Appalachian Voices Tennessee Field Coordinator Brianna Knisley. “More than 35 percent of households in Tennessee would qualify for the federal Weatherization Assistance Program and in Memphis, low-income households have some of the highest energy burdens in the country.”
“Unfortunately, the weatherization programs available to residents here aren’t nearly enough to cover the need,” Knisely continues. “Organizations in the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement are looking to address this issue with policy solutions that would make our electricity cheaper, cleaner and would add more equitable rate structures and energy efficiency programs throughout the Valley.”
Appalachian Voices and other organizations have called on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on multiple occasions to enact a statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs, amid other concerns.
While energy burden is worsened by COVID-19, it is a larger issue. Taylor has had trouble paying her utility bill in the past, especially in the winter months.
“I live in Sevier County, which is largely tourism-based,” says Taylor. “During the winter, it’s a dead time here and there’s just no money to be made. When you’re looking at a $300 to $400 heating bill with no money coming in, [power shutoffs have] happened a couple of times.”
Before the pandemic, FACK primarily provided first aid supplies, emergency contraceptives, needle exchanges and other services. Now, the group also helps to raise money for people like Taylor who don’t have anywhere else to turn. People seeking assistance need only fill out a form online and a FACK representative will get back to them.
“When the pandemic started heightening up, we really had to move on creating these forms that people could fill out for help,” says Caroline Rowcliffe, an organizer with FACK. “I think people will continue working with this model even after COVID has passed.”In addition to facilitating these mutual aid efforts, FACK is also working to get supplies like food, masks and hand sanitizer to those in need. Rowcliffe states that the community stepped up when they experienced an initial shortage of masks and gloves.
“As soon as we put the call out for gloves and surgical masks that are disposable to get to people that don’t have access to running water or shelter, don’t have access to any washing machines or dryers, people showed up and gave us gloves and masks to get started while we were waiting on our orders to arrive,” says Rowcliffe.
She is particularly concerned about what she says is the lack of attention given to the houseless community in Knoxville. FACK uses the word “houseless” instead of “homeless,” since lacking a house is much different than lacking a home and community.
“They have no access to any public restrooms to wash their hands or use the bathroom right now, because most people rely on businesses that are open to go use their restrooms or use their running water,” says Rowcliffe. “With all the businesses closed and a good majority of public restrooms closed, they have lost this access, and there has been this huge swipe of COVID-19 among the houseless community and poor folks.”
She asks for people to continue sending money to those in need and to speak at local government meetings.
“People have voices, they need to use them — especially if you have the privilege to have the technology to call into those Zoom meetings and voice your opinions,” says Rowcliffe.
Taylor says that FACK has been an enormous help in the last month.
“If it weren’t for FACK this past month, I mean, I don’t know what we would have done,” says Taylor. “We literally would not have eaten. I wouldn’t have had diapers for my youngest. There are several organizations that I filled out the forms for, and literally the only one I heard back from in this area was FACK.”
“The hardest thing for me was asking for help,” Taylor adds. “I had to swallow my pride, for sure. But it’s not about me, it’s about my family. And I’ll do whatever’s necessary to make sure they’re taken care of.”
Rural households in the East and Southeast have a much higher energy burden than the rest of the country, according to a 2018 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy that Appalachian Voices contributed to. Despite the pandemic, some utilities are still pushing for rate increases.
On April 6, the Virginia State Corporation Commission approved a $9 million rate increase for Old Dominion Power amidst record unemployment numbers caused by COVID-19. This increases the average monthly bill by around $20 for nearly 30,000 ratepayers in Southwest Virginia effective May 1. The SCC did, however, reject changes that would have made it harder to save money through solar installations or energy efficiency measures.
“At a time of such crisis, people in rural communities are seeing corporate entities like this take advantage of citizens simply because they know they can,” said Rachel Fischer, a member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and ODP ratepayer in Norton, Va. “With so many of us required to stay in our homes, we have no choice but to use our personal utilities more often.”
In North Carolina, Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas postponed rate cases due to COVID-19, and are pushing for final hearings to be held in July. The monopoly utilities are requesting a 14.3 percent average increase and a 6.7 percent average increase for residential customers, respectively. Energy burden is not currently considered by the N.C. Utilities Commission in rate cases. But in formal testimony filed in February, Rory McIlmoil of Appalachian Voices argues that it should be, since 25 percent of all households in the state experience a high energy burden, among other reasons. This number would increase if the commission approves Duke’s proposed rate increase.
In a May 3 op-ed in the Winston-Salem Journal, Josh McClenney of Appalachian Voices andShiva Patel of the Center for Biological Diversity wrote about how vulnerable communities are hit the hardest by COVID-19.
“The pandemic has ruthlessly laid bare the depth of economic disparity that existed long before the virus struck,” reads the op-ed. “As North Carolina leaders work to stanch the immediate crisis, it’s imperative they adopt policies to ensure families and small businesses emerge stronger than before — and a starting point is addressing electricity utility services.”
McClenney and Patel called for North Carolina regulators and utilities to implement stronger protections for ratepayers for future crises. These include extending the window for utility late fees to be paid from six to 18 months, requiring all utilities to report service disconnections, a cap on low-income energy bills and more.
One of the most basic protections against contracting the coronavirus is to wash your hands — a practice made difficult when utilities shut off your water.
On March 16, Virginia regulators ordered utilities to cease power, gas, water and sewer disconnections. However, this only applied to state-regulated utilities and not municipal utilities like county water departments.
While the Arlington County government stated on March 17 that they would suspend service disconnections for non-payment, homeowners were receiving delinquency notices threatening water shutoffs as late as mid-April, according to ARLnow. The county was also continuing to assess late fees. Arlington officials have since changed this policy, and are no longer assessing late fees in addition to continuing to suspend service disconnections.
Most people in the United States, especially the South, are served by public, unregulated water systems, according to Mary Grant with the international nonprofit organization Food & Water Watch.
“Lots of small water systems are too small to be regulated by the state,” says Grant. “There’s such a patchwork of water systems — 50,000 across the country. So we need every community, every person to have the peace of mind that they won’t lose their water service right now during the pandemic.”
On April 28, a coalition of 17 groups including Food & Water Watch sent a letter to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam calling on him to issue a moratorium on water shutoffs, to immediately reconnect all any that have lost service and to waive all late fees. A similar campaign in Washington state led to Gov. Jay Inslee instituting these requests in an emergency proclamation on April 17.
“Households that have their water shut off will be even more vulnerable to the rampant spread of the coronavirus — which endangers their health and our communities,” reads the letter to Gov. Northam.
Grant says that Food & Water Watch is working with other groups to get a national moratorium on electricity, water and broadband shutoffs in a national stimulus bill, in addition to water infrastructure funding.
“Water systems need a funding boost, and we need to make sure that service is affordable for all at all times,” says Grant.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a COVID-19 stimulus package, known as the HEROES Act, which would enact a national moratorium on all utility shutoffs among other items. It is unlikely that the Senate will vote on the bill when they reconvene in June, and it remains to be seen if legislators will include a moratorium in any future stimulus bills.
But even after society regains a sense of normalcy — whenever that may be — those who were unable to pay for bills for months could still have that balance looming over them. And the root causes of energy burden will still be there.
Joseph Daniel, senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests that policymakers should consider options such as forgiving outstanding balances on utility bills and funding low-and-moderate-income energy efficiency and solar programs. Additionally, state utility commissions should watch for unnecessary costs in rate cases.
For now, many people will have to rely on state action and help from grassroots groups to get by. In Sevier County, Tenn., Taylor says that a moratorium on utility shutoffs is needed so that families like hers don’t have to worry about losing essential services.
“That just rubs salt in the wound right now, the fear and the stress that it’s caused,” she says.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on May 22, 2020, to include information about the U.S. House of Representatives vote on The HEROES Act.