Virginia legislators will try again during the 2023 General Assembly to help ensure that water and power utilities are available to –— and more affordable for –— cash-strapped households in Virginia.
Currently, Virginia is one of only seven states that doesn’t protect residents from getting their power or water shut off over unpaid bills during extreme weather. Yet in 2022, tens of thousands of Virginia households risked losing these essential services at some point, a vulnerability revealed by the more than 50,000 calls for utility assistance to the state’s social service hotline.
At the recent Water and Power for All Town Hall, Del. Irene Shin (D-86) and Stephanie Sidwell, chief of staff for Del. Jackie Glass (D-89), discussed their plans for legislation during the upcoming legislative session.
Shin will reintroduce a bill to ban utilities from shutting off electricity, gas and water services to low-income customers during extreme weather conditions or during a public health crisis. Glass plans to sponsor legislation that would cap late fees and interest charges on late utility bills for customers of publicly-owned utilities. Through their combined efforts, Shin and Glass hope to establish utility shutoff policies that meet widely accepted best practices.
Calling policies that ensure access to essential utilities in critical periods “common sense,” Shin recognized that the issues “will need to be addressed legislatively.” Her office has been working with utility regulators since the early summer to develop a bill that would, she said, “reduce immediate harm being caused to these families whose utilities are being disconnected.”
States with hot- or cold-weather shutoff policies
The town hall was organized by Appalachian Voices and other members of the Energy Burden Coalition, a group that includes social and environmental justice organizations throughout Virginia and which advocates for affordable clean electricity. Since March 2020, when Covid-19 forced people to stay home from work and other social activities, these advocates have been concerned about the incidence of water and power shutoffs of low-income households that cannot afford their utility bills.
Now that the emergency order banning utility shutoffs during the height of the pandemic has expired, the Energy Burden Coalition worries about how access to these essential services would be handled in the event of another public health crisis. Unlike 43 other states, the Virginia legislature has not enacted policies that would protect households from shutoff in extreme weather conditions.
Instead, legislators and utility regulators have left decisions about when to shut water or power off over unpaid bills up to the utility companies themselves, even during very hot or cold weather. This leniency towards the companies means that people served by one company may be protected, while Virginians served by another company aren’t, posing an arbitrary geographic injustice to low-income Virginians, who don’t have the same security in access to water and power during crisis.
Meanwhile, current high energy prices, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and coupled with economic inflation and supply chain challenges, are making the prospect of unaffordable utility bills a reality for many Virginia residents. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that electricity prices will rise by 10% and methane gas prices by 28% this winter. These factors will increase a low-income households’ vulnerability to shutoff during the current heating period, as the cooler weather leads to increases in energy consumption and higher, more unaffordable bills.
Gaps in shutoff policies of water and energy utilities in Virginia
In recent years, several customer deaths resulting from shutoffs of gas or electricity for nonpayment have prompted legislators and regulators in Arizona, Illinois and Texas to prioritize human health and well-being by establishing weather-related disconnection policies.
During the 2022 General Assembly session, Virginia Dels. Shin and Kaye Kory (D-38) followed this lead by introducing two bills that would have established more compassionate standards, including by expanding the existing, but limited, shutoff protection for customers with medical vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, each bill stalled in committee, leaving significant policy gaps in the wake of their attempts.
Alarmingly, even people with serious medical conditions — who may require power and water for the operation of medical equipment or refrigerated medicines — are inadequately protected from life-threatening shutoffs. Investor-owned electric utilities (Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power and Old Dominion Power), 12 electric cooperatives and all public water utilities in Virginia are required to provide a delay from disconnection to customers with a physician-certified medical vulnerability. But Powell Valley Electric Cooperative, the 16 publicly-owned utilities, unregulated water utilities and gas utilities are not held to this mandate in spite of its life-or-death implications. And yet, the use of in-home medical equipment may cause energy bills to double from use of that equipment, making the issue of keeping financially burdened customers connected to a critical power supply even more challenging.
Our new report, “Pressing pause on utility shutoffs,” explores these policy gaps in more detail, but our recommendations to the Virginia legislature can be summed up below. We are calling upon the legislature to enact enforceable shutoff policies that:
- Prohibit disconnections for nonpayment during any public health crisis and during weather extremes, including high and low temperatures;
- Require all utilities to provide an exemption from shutoff for medically vulnerable customers, including infants and seniors; and
- Require regular reporting on disconnections made or avoided to state utility regulators.
As the Water and Power for All Town Hall wound to a close, Stephanie Sidwell leaned on her many years of experience working in the legislative branch to encourage attendees to reach out to their elected representatives about stopping shutoffs — and to do so often. Volume and consistency, she said, are the keys to getting your legislators to pay attention to the issues you care about. In other words, legislators respond to the issues they hear about more frequently and more consistently from their constituents.
During the 2023 General Assembly, we need you to ask your delegates and senators to establish universal disconnection policies across utility types and utility service areas, policies that would put lives — rather than utility profits — first.