Why Do We Still Have Energy Shutoffs? Another World is Possible.

Pink square with distorted and faded graphics of electrical lines, electricity symbols, dollar signs, bills, graphs, thought bubbles, and coins. The word "But" is in the top left with a large "X" over it. The lower half is a dark gray with the distorted outline of a house with an unplugged power cord. Text in the lower half reads "Why do we still have energy shutoffs? Another world is possible." 

By Justin B. Schott | November 14, 2022

It is straightforward: An energy system that actively subsidizes clean energy investments for the rich and for corporations while actively depriving poor people from simply accessing heat and electricity is not just. This should not be a gray issue.

But just as importantly, shutoffs are not inevitable result of poverty or a “necessary evil” that results from forces beyond our control.

When it comes to calling for a moratorium on energy shutoffs, it seems there is always a hesitant “but, we can’t because…..” in response. At the root, these arguments are not unlike 19th century slaveholder arguments that if there ever were to be emancipation, it should come about gradually, over a few generations, so that the enslaved could be sufficiently prepared and educated for their freedom. Similarly, arguments to prolong the dehumanizing and sometimes death-inducing practice of utility shutoffs (3.6 million occurred from January 2020 to December 2021, during the pandemic) reveal thinly veiled racism and classism.

Here are some of the arguments I have encountered in regulatory, policy and utility spaces. I hope the rebuttals show that eliminating the practice of shutoffs is straightforward and perfectly achievable now; what lacks is our failure of will. Decision-makers are indeed empowered to end shutoffs.

#1: BUT we can’t force people to subsidize low-income households.

The reverse is already true. But low-income households pay surcharges that have historically subsidized clean energy upgrades (e.g. electric vehicles, rooftop solar) that go almost exclusively to wealthy households. Additionally, residents often subsidize lower business and industrial rates.

#2: BUT it would cost too much money.
Over 80% of the energy safety net—upwards of $10 billion annually—is funneled into into bill assistance every year instead of long term investments in deep home energy retrofits, solar, and storage. Had this been used to reduce the root cause of high energy bills rather than as a cyclical band aid, shutoffs would not be the problem they are today.

Pie chart from the ACEE, 2016. Caption: Figure 2. Support for low-income energy needs. Data on ratepayer-funded bill assistance, ratepayer-funded energy efficiency, WAP, and LIHEAP assistance are from 2013. LIHEAP spending on efficiency is approximated based on 6% of LIHEAP funds spent on efficiency in 2006. Data on state and local contributions and private donations are from 2010. Source: LIHEAP Clearinghouse 2016. In orange it shows that 81% is Bill assistance (40% LIHEAP bill assistance and 41% Ratepayer-funded bill assistance). In green it shows 14% is energy efficiency (2% LIHEAP for efficiency, 2% WAP, 10% Rate-payer funded energy efficiency). In blue, it shows 5% unspecified (2% private donations, 3% state and local contributions).

Image from ACEEE, 2016

#3: BUT we need more data.

It does not require any data to enact a permanent moratorium on shutoffs, as we saw in 2020 and 2021 in response to COVID-19. My colleague Isaac Sevier penned an excellent post on why more data is not the answer.

#4: BUT we can’t give away energy for free.

No one is asking for a handout, they are asking to spend an affordable share of their income on energy, whether they are rich or poor.

Low income household bear a larger energy burden, meaning a greater percentage of their household income is directed towards energy costs. The national median energy burden is 3.1% while the national median energy burden of low-income households is 8.1%.

#5: BUT who will pay if low-income households just keep racking up utility debt?

We don’t need to answer all the “What ifs” before we start. To avoid mounting debt, we must redesign programs to maximize reductions in energy consumption—through deep home retrofits, weatherization, combining solar and storage, and enrolling in all of the best rate plans. If after retrofits and affordable payment plans there is still an amount households cannot pay, we can consider multiple funding sources to fill the gap.

#6. BUT it would not be cost effective.

This is only true if we use the narrowest definition of cost-effectiveness, like a utility resource cost test, rather than a societal cost test that also accounts for benefits like improved air quality and respiratory health, climate resilience, and creating and sustaining high quality jobs for people who need them most. In purely economic terms, the federal government values a human life at around $8 million.

#7. BUT it would disincentivize personal responsibility.

Again, people have shown a willingness to pay what they can afford for energy; they are not asking for a handout. Wealthy households use more energy per square foot despite generally living in more efficient homes with better insulation, EnergyStar appliances, etc. Poor people have already demonstrated they are better energy conservers.

#8. BUT if we can’t shut people off, people will just stop paying.

If you are really worried about the 0.001% of people who will try to game the system, you can make special rules to deal with exorbitant energy users who refuse to pay a dime.

#9. BUT people who can’t pay their energy bill keep buying big screen TVs and new X-Box’s that waste energy.

STOP! Seriously stop. This is a racist trope that harkens back to the punishing stereotype of “welfare queens” that has been widely debunked. Wealthy people use energy more carelessly than those who cannot afford it. Poor people already resort to keeping their homes at dangerously hot or cold temperatures to limit their energy consumption. The big picture is that people are being deprived of a fundamental human right because they cannot afford it, even though they generally use energy more conscientiously than wealthy people who see negligible impacts from wasting energy, buying a hot tub or adding another gas guzzler to their three-car garage. If someone raises the “big screen TV argument” again, please put your foot down and call out this nonsense.

Every argument against ending shutoffs is flawed to its core.

We don’t require proof of cost-effectiveness in order to provide emergency medical care, and we would be appalled if someone with a life-threatening illness or injury was sent home from the hospital before being treated because they didn’t have enough money in their pocket or bank account to cover the cost.

Not having access to energy is also an emergency need. Without energy, people suffer in unconscionable ways, and during extreme climate events, people die. We cannot refuse to provide energy any more than we can refuse to provide emergency medical care.
Where does that leave us, as individuals in the system? Where does that leave you specifically?

As a starting point, we can all adopt a brave stance that shutoffs should be abolished. They are an appalling human rights violation in a country in which many billionaires have paid exactly $0 in taxes year after year. Shutoffs deserve no more place in modern America than slave auctions. It is time to abolish them, without excuses or exemptions. We need to be unapologetic in our messaging and reject false solutions like collecting data on shutoffs, rather than permanently banning this barbaric and archaic practice immediately.

There are indeed conversations to be had about strategy and tactics, policy and program design. A moral argument backed by an economic argument is stronger than a moral argument alone, for instance. But before we wade into the technocratic weeds, we need to unite around a common vision of a world without shutoffs.

Toward a World Without Shutoffs

Nearly 30 years ago, the late Donella Meadows penned “Envisioning A Sustainable World” and revealed the surprising inability and refusal of leading experts on hunger to envision a world without hunger:

“What I got was an angry reaction. The participants refused. They said that was a stupid and dangerous question. Here are some of their comments:

  • Visions are fantasies, they don’t change anything. Talking about them is a waste of time. We don’t need to talk about what the end of hunger will be like, we need to talk about how to get there.
  • We all know what it’s like not to be hungry. What’s important to talk about is how terrible it is to be hungry,
  • I never really thought about it. I’m not sure what the world would be like without hunger, and I don’t see why I need to know.
  • Stop being unrealistic. There will always be hunger. We can decrease it, but we can never eliminate it.
  • You have to be careful with visions. They can be dangerous. Hitler had a vision. I don’t trust visionaries and I don’t want to be one.”

If we are not unapologetic and unrelenting in our demands that utility shutoffs must be banned, we will run into the same responses by the experts in power. Meadows wrote that as we age, we lose our innate ability to vision that we had as children. We get jaded by the norms of overly professionalized norms and spaces and are so removed from thinking about beauty, justice, and ubiquitous community wellness and happiness that we discard visioning from our changemakers’ toolkit, reverting instead to data and graphs. But decades into the neoliberal economic experiment of data-driven policy- and decision-making, shutoffs proliferate. We need a new approach, one that rekindles the children that are still within us, perhaps needing to be awakened and lured from the long slumber of our careers.

We need consensus that shutoffs are wrong, utterly avoidable, and that we can envision a better, shutoff-free future.

In the poem, V’ahavta (also the name of a daily Jewish prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy), Aurora Levins Morales offers guidance on how we need to continuously paint a picture of the world we desire:

“Say these words when you lie down and when you rise up,
when you go out and when you return. In times of mourning
and in times of joy. Inscribe them on your doorposts,
embroider them on your garments, tattoo them on your shoulders,
teach them to your children, your neighbors, your enemies,
recite them in your sleep, here in the cruel shadow of empire:
Another world is possible.

…imagine winning.  This is your sacred task.
This is your power. Imagine
every detail of winning, the exact smell of the summer streets
in which no one has been shot, the muscles you have never
unclenched from worry, gone soft as newborn skin,
the sparkling taste of food when we know
that no one on earth is hungry, that the beggars are fed,
that the old man under the bridge and the woman
wrapping herself in thin sheets in the back seat of a car,
and the children who suck on stones,
nest under a flock of roofs that keep multiplying their shelter.
Lean with all your being towards that day
when the poor of the world shake down a rain of good fortune
out of the heavy clouds, and justice rolls down like waters.”

Working out the technical details of how we eliminate energy shutoffs will flow with relative ease once we agree that we must live in a world in which shutoffs are unthinkable. At least 90% of the work will be shifting our values and collective belief in a vision of a world without shutoffs. Don’t be distracted by data and graphs that no matter how vivid and robust, will not get us there. This journey is in the vision and how we communicate it. In how we build coalitions. In how we enable those who have not previously been in support to safely change their views and join the growing consensus without punishment. The journey is in our collective healing and envisioning our co-liberation from worrying about how people without power are weathering the next category five storm or 110F heat wave.

This is our power; another world is possible. Morales concludes:
“Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth
Into the throat with which you sing.  Escalate your dreams.
Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down
any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way.
Make them burn clear as a starry drinking gourd
Over the grim fog of exhaustion, and keep walking.
Hold hands. Share water. Keep imagining.
So that we, and the children of our children’s children
may live”

Want to learn more?

Center for Biological Diversity
Powerless in the Pandemic
Indiana Energy Justice Lab
NAACP – Lights Out in the Cold
TURN – End of Shutoffs Campaign

Justin Schott
Justin Schott

Project Manager of the Energy Equity Project

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