NOTE: This op-ed was originally published in The Tennessean on October 8, 2020.
By Howard Crystal and Brianna Knisley
In Tennessee and across the country, millions of households are living under a cloud of uncertainty, unsure if their electricity will be shut off in the coming weeks.
The COVID-19 pandemic and related unemployment crisis are still battering the Southeast. Yet emergency orders providing a safety net and preventing utilities from cutting off customers’ power are expiring.
That’s why we recently joined dozens of climate-justice organizations to demand that the Tennessee Valley Authority provide the necessary funding for a moratorium on electricity shutoffs in the region and debt relief for its end-use customers. We also called on TVA to use its public hearing process to build a COVID relief and recovery plan with the communities who have been most impacted.
TVA recently took an important step with its $200 million pandemic relief credit intended to lower utility bills across the federal utility’s vast territory, which will be welcome news for most customers who will see slightly reduced bills.
But without a shut-off moratorium, across-the-board rate reductions for local power companies won’t necessarily help people who can’t afford to pay their electricity bills and are at risk of having their electricity turned off. And while this rate reduction is a great start, it doesn’t address the debt that’s been piling up since this unprecedented public health crisis began.
As the country’s largest public power provider, TVA has the money and the responsibility to protect people from needless suffering and crushing debt. This is an opportunity for TVA to demonstrate the advantages of the public power model.
TVA must start by working with local power companies to guarantee that none of the millions of households its network serves will lose electricity.
The Tennessee Valley is a region where low-wealth communities, Black communities and other communities of color are already disproportionately burdened by pollution, high energy bills and utility shutoffs. Shutting off their electricity in the middle of a pandemic and a recession would be cruel and, given TVA’s vast resources, completely unnecessary.
TVA ended last year with more than $1 billion in net income and is on pace to do as well this year. That begs the question: Why is TVA collecting so much more from ratepayers than it needs to provide electric service?
Our petition offers specific proposals for how TVA could reallocate its very deep resources (which, not incidentally, come from ratepayers), including trimming the millions it gives to outside organizations, and tapping some of that more than $1 billion net income.
It’s also vital that TVA direct the funds to those who need them most and ensure a fully transparent process. We need to know precisely how the local power companies will use these funds.
Transparency should include monthly public reports, in cooperation with the local power companies, showing how the utility is responding to people at risk of falling behind on payments or having their electricity shut off. Data should include how many customers have unpaid charges and the number who have been disconnected.
Challenges in affording electricity are nothing new for TVA residents. Indeed, they’re symptomatic of greater energy problems underlying TVA’s portfolio, which is largely dependent on fossil fuels. As it is, the massive agency is making matters worse by using public money to perpetuate a system that holds customers hostage to a centralized, climate-killing, fossil-fuel infrastructure that adds to the region’s problems, rather than leading us to solutions.
The pandemic has worsened the energy insecurity that families have been struggling with for generations. In non-COVID times, at least 1 million families lose their electricity every year, and they’re disproportionally families of color.
By convening public hearings and listening to the communities they serve, TVA can work cooperatively with the public and local distributors to craft a longer term solution to address electricity shutoffs and high energy bills for low-income residents, and develop a distributed clean-energy transition away from fossil fuels and centralized power.
Howard Crystal is legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice Program. Brianna Knisley is the Tennessee Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices.