Gabriela Alberola is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she studies environmental justice and climate adaptation. She is interning with our Energy Democracy team this fall.
The recent budget approved by the Virginia General Assembly on Monday, August 9th, will deliver urgent relief to the thousands of Virginians struggling to maintain critical utility services due to the Covid crisis. Thanks to the efforts of Governor Northam and members of the Senate and the House of Delegates, $120 million in federal relief will be made available to provide assistance for residential customers that are more than 60 days behind on their utility bills.
The legislation also extends a moratorium specifically on electricity disconnection until March 2022 — but only for residential customers of Dominion Energy who have previously received bill assistance. While this provides welcome relief for many families, customers of Virginia’s 31 other electric utilities are still vulnerable to losing electricity because the moratorium that covered them just expired on Sunday, August 29th. Furthermore, the recent legislation only covers electric utilities — we still need disconnection protection for all other utilities.
The Covid crisis has made it impossible for many Virginians to afford essential services like water and electricity. Utilities, whether municipally-, cooperative-, or investor- owned, are facing millions of dollars in unpaid bills. For example, by the end of last year, municipal utilities had accrued more than $88 million in unpaid bills. According to a recent estimate, Virginia’s 13 electric co-ops are currently facing up to $40 million in unpaid bills.
However, even in pre-Covid times, many people struggled to pay their utilities, particularly their energy bills. This is in part due to Virginians having some of the highest average monthly electricity bills in the country — the sixth highest to be precise. So the Covid crisis has only exacerbated and exposed a problem that already required urgent attention: the high energy burden that Virginians face every month.
Low- and middle-income communities by definition face the highest energy burdens: when incomes are low, a higher percentage of household income must go towards basic services. However, this is not the only reason for the disproportionate energy burden. An important factor is that energy-efficient technologies are too often out of reach for many low- and middle-income households. Older buildings are harder to keep cool or warm, and aging or inefficient appliances typically require more energy to operate than newer, more efficient models.
This is an environmental justice issue, and a textbook case of inequity. And this is why, when energy companies like Dominion Energy say that Virginians’ electricity bills are higher than other states simply because they use more electricity, they miss a critical piece of this puzzle because the implication is that it is ultimately the consumers’ fault. But higher energy usage by low- and middle-income customers is not the result of carelessness or wastefulness. On the contrary, it’s an issue deeply rooted in inequity and that, furthermore, perpetuates inequity.
The Covid crisis has only made more evident something we’ve known all along: we need better protection of essential services for all people. Clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. And access to electricity is globally recognized as a sign of economic development and human wellbeing as it improves access to education, health and economic opportunities. Without statewide disconnection protection standards, residents across the state face a wide variety of hurdles and penalties set by the utilities themselves which make a difficult situation even harder to navigate.
At Appalachian Voices, we advocate for statewide, baseline utility disconnection protection standards for cooperative, municipal and investor-owned utilities. These protections should include:
- Seasonal limitations on disconnection (so residents don’t lose critical services during extreme weather);
- Special protections during emergency declarations;
- Protections from draconian disconnection and reconnection fees; and
- Access to fair and feasible repayment plans.
Utility shutoffs perpetuate cycles of poverty and inequity, and sometimes even force people to resort to dangerous alternatives to maintain livable conditions. We commend Gov. Northam and Virginia legislators for their tireless efforts to support access to critical utility services during the Covid crisis. It is crucial that these leaders now pivot towards long-term, permanent disconnection protections for all Virginians.