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

OPINION: Beyond lip service: It’s time to measure equity in clean energy investments

By Justin B. Schott | July 9, 2021

Imagine an aspiring Olympian training to contend for a medal, but being deprived of a stopwatch until after the race began. That is the current state of measuring equity in clean energy programs—we are running blind and overdue for a more systematic approach. 

On a positive note, nearly three out of four Americans live in a place that has committed to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner. These goals are no longer just aspirational, they are utterly feasible, perhaps even inevitable. 

Solar power is now, remarkably, cheaper to produce than electricity produced by fossil fuels, and we are amidst a proliferation of increasingly affordable and efficient electric heating systems and battery technologies for electric vehicles. We are already hitting the inflection point that will dramatically accelerate the transition to clean energy. The question now becomes how will this clean energy transition go down? Who will capitalize and who will be left behind? And if we want to answer the how questions, we have to stop being fuzzy about what we mean by equity. 

The fruits of clean energy, like electric vehicles, solar panels, and green jobs are theoretically available to anyone, but the truth is that Black, brown, and Native people are being shut out of these opportunities, despite higher levels of support for climate mitigation than their whiter and wealthier counterparts. 

When you think of someone driving an electric car, who do you see? Who is represented in climate leadership positions and decision-making tables – whose faces do you see in power? Who is designing clean energy policy and programs and what implications does that have?

Inequities proliferate by race and class across the energy sector in parallel to inequities in education, housing, jobs, access to green space, and health care. Nearly 120 million Americans, including half of all Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face some form of energy insecurity every year–the threat of or actual shutoff of electricity or heating, keeping one’s home at uncomfortable or unsafe temperatures to avoid high bills, or foregoing other critical basic needs like food and medicines. 

BIPOC households spend a much higher percentage of their household income on energy, even though they use less energy per square foot than their White counterparts. And despite a deep interest in clean energy, they have been shut out of opportunities to put solar on their roofs or buy electric vehicles: contractors won’t serve inner cities, banks won’t lend, utilities don’t advertise or have culturally appropriate marketing. What’s happening in the energy sector is very much ground zero in civil rights struggles.

Contrary to the zero-carbon climate goals, which specify a baseline year for comparison, intermediate targets (e.g. in Detroit, a 75% reduction in municipal emissions by 2034) define what constitutes a source of clean energy, defining and measuring equity is in its infancy. 

With hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in clean energy investments poised to flow, the absence of a consistent and comprehensive approach to set equity goals and measure progress is glaring. If not addressed, that absence will be the bottleneck that stalls a just energy transition. 

Suppose we meet climate goals by turning Nevada’s Mojave Desert into a giant solar array and massive battery field, accompanied by a network of extreme high transmission power lines that reach even the lowest molehill in Mississippi, lining the pockets of investor-owned utilities while perpetuating energy poverty and insecurity? In that case, we will have missed a generational opportunity. 

This is an opportunity to 

  • generate millions of new high-quality jobs for those who have been shut out of the energy sector and burdened by its pollution 
  • retrofit millions of homes and ensure they contribute to health instead of exacerbating asthma, and  
  • build wealth in BIPOC and frontline environmental justice communities that have borne the effects of redlining, disinvestment, gentrification, and concentrations of our most toxic and carcinogenic air, water, and soils. 

The clean energy transition could be a vehicle for beginning to right centuries of brutal wrongs. 

The Justice40 initiative of the Biden-Harris administration recognized that equity needs measurable goals. It mandates that 40% of the benefits from federal clean energy investments must be received by disadvantaged communities. 

The Department of Energy has already launched a Justice40 dashboard to track its investments.

Most states, cities, and utilities simply don’t measure energy equity or set equitable energy targets in a meaningful way. While there are exceptions, like California Energy Commission’s robust Energy Equity Indicators, there is a lot of conversation about equity that generally lacks teeth. 

There are equity working groups and task forces, utilities and public utility commissions required to “consider” equity in planning and make “a sufficient supply of program offerings” available to “diverse” customers. These are typical starting points that acknowledge the need to do something about equity. But they don’t point the way forward.

How should we begin to quantify whether clean energy benefits and the ongoing burdens of energy from fossil fuels are being distributed fairly? How can policymakers and regulators work to rectify the historical legacies that have burdened Black, Brown, Indigenous, and lower-income communities? 

At the Energy Equity Project, we are working with dozens of stakeholders and partners across the nation to create an equity measurement framework that can be used to measure four dimensions of equity and upwards of sixty equity indicators within the energy sector. We are working to ensure that the framework embodies principles of equity in its development—focusing on expanding participation among BIPOC-led community organizations and compensating people for their time to share feedback and participate in workgroups. 

Our goals are as follows:

1) Recognize that equity is multi-faceted. It is tempting to try to reduce equity to a single metric, like the energy burden (the percentage of household income spent on energy bills). The energy burden is one consideration of affordability, but it does not speak to whether people have a meaningful voice in designing energy policies and programs, or who gets to own new solar installations, or even if the rates themselves are equitable. At best, a reductive approach to energy is likely to address a single symptom of energy inequities. In a white paper that was foundational to the launch of the Energy Equity Project, Jamal Lewis and Dr. Carlos Martín describe six dimensions of energy equity that should be considered.

2) Establish guiding principles. We are not advocating for measuring equity for its own sake. Equity goals need to be tied to broader principles, like a belief that energy is a human right and everyone deserves access to energy regardless of their ability to pay for it. Other principles might require taking a historical account of clean energy incentives and making up for disparities.

3) Require utilities and other program providers to make the data public. We need to know who is participating in energy efficiency and clean energy program, how much they are saving, and where new investments in things like public transit, microgrids, and EV chargers are being made. We need to know the demographics of the recipients to determine whether 40% of the benefits are reaching disadvantaged communities. 

4) Elevate a vision of energy democracy. Equity is ultimately deeper than simply being able to get energy efficiency upgrades for one’s home. Equity means that a significant share of new clean energy assets, like solar arrays, must be designed and owned by disadvantaged communities. It means they deserve formal decision-making power that goes well beyond public hearings; it means that those most impacted by the current energy system must have power to shape the clean energy trajectory of this country. 

How can we safeguard a just transition, so that BIPOC and frontline residents move to the front of the line for clean energy benefits? It all starts with defining and measuring equity. 

U-M Energy Equity Project Partners in Developing Inclusive Decarbonization Policies for the Future

By Haley Riley, MS Candidate | May 27, 2021

The Biden administration’s recommitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change has inspired experts and organizations focused on net-zero energy production to plan for the implementation of decarbonization technologies. On May 25-26, the School for Environment and Sustainability joined a workshop for stakeholders, including modelers, analysts, and policy and implementation experts. Participating groups included Climate Works, Center for Global Sustainability, Rocky Mountain Institute, and World Resources Institute, as well as researchers and advisors appointed to President Biden’s climate policy and innovation office.

“Our goal was to create a governing body for this work, and to bridge the gap between technical and analytical frameworks and an interest in including equity and jobs considerations in long-term decarbonization strategies,” said Justin Schott, project manager for U-M’s Urban Energy Justice Lab’s Energy Equity Project, which was one of the organizers of the workshop.

While low-carbon technologies such as batteries, photovoltaics, and wind turbines are more cost-competitive than ever, this workshop focused on moving the conversation beyond least-cost, model-based scenarios toward policy and technology pathways that are politically feasible to implement in the U.S. and globally. Discussions around the feasibility, affordability, and steps for how to actually implement net-zero technologies led the direction of the workshop, but equity also featured heavily.

“We determined that we have the tools to feasibly implement these technologies, and we know we can do it affordably,” Schott said. “But the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd has given us space to discuss and address the legacies of structural racism and white supremacy. The topic of equity is now open for discussion even among researchers and modelers who previously didn’t see equity as playing a role in their own work. We discussed how to rework models to actually include equity and job promotion, as well as how to engage with community members to make sure that our models account for actual lived realities.”

At the end of the workshop attention was turned towards integrating equity, job creation, and other factors into net-zero modeling and future research efforts. Participants also shared the intent to raise a research agenda to inform more inclusive decarbonization policies for the future.

Energy Equity Project

U-M Energy Equity Project to Develop First Standardized Tool for Driving Equity in Clean Energy Industry

ANN ARBOR—Despite widespread calls for a just transition to cleaner, more resilient energy systems, there isn’t a standardized measurement framework for evaluating the equity of clean energy programs. As a result, utility administrators, regulators, and energy advocates have been judging equity on an ad hoc basis. The Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) today announced a new program aimed at addressing this gap, which will measure whether clean energy programs are being distributed equitably to those who need them most.

The Energy Equity Project—a partnership between SEAS and the Energy and Joyce Foundations—will create a standardized approach to collecting and tracking data to improve equity in clean energy programs. The Equity Measurement Framework will be the first of its kind to assess equity in clean energy policies, programs, and investments, including how easy it is to access clean energy services in frontline and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities that are burdened by disproportionately high energy costs and pollution. This comes at a critical time, given the Biden administration’s increasing focus on environmental justice. The project will dovetail with the administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which pledges to deliver 40 percent of climate investment benefits, including weatherization, retrofits, and renewable energy, to disadvantaged communities.

The Energy Equity Project team will engage BIPOC and frontline communities in the Framework development process through a series of summer public engagement activities, including two webinars in June: “From the Frontline to the Front of the Line: An Introduction to the Energy Equity Project.”

Subsequent listening sessions will focus on hearing from those historically burdened by fossil fuels and excluded from the benefits of clean energy and climate action.

“The Energy Equity Project is an opportunity to both drive and measure how we’re moving the needle on equity in the clean energy and energy efficiency industry,” said Dr. Tony Reames, principal investigator of the project, who also is an assistant professor of energy justice at SEAS and director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab. “There’s a big transparency issue where it’s easy for utilities or regulators to say they’re incorporating equity into their programs or that equity is a priority, without having any teeth behind those commitments. We need a tool to evaluate whether they are hitting the mark or not.”

Reames and the Urban Energy Justice Lab were tapped by a group of collaborators to lead the development and testing of the Framework, which will address the key problems in equity measurement: a diversity of approaches that stymies aggregation and comparison, lack of access to demographic data, and the high cost to implement equity measurement and reporting. One of the key goals of the Framework is to measurably improve the clean energy benefits that BIPOC and frontline communities receive, including lower energy bills, cleaner air, green jobs, resilience to climate impacts and power outages, and ownership of renewable energy systems and electric vehicles.

“While electric vehicles, solar panels, and green jobs are theoretically available to anyone, the truth is that Black, Brown, and Native people are being shut out of these opportunities,” said Justin Schott, Project Manager. “Polls show BIPOC support a range of climate mitigation efforts at the same or higher levels than Whiter and wealthier counterparts. This follows the same pattern that we see in housing, health care, education, and economic development: The legacies of structural racism have resulted in barriers to a just transition. It’s much harder to find highly efficient, new technologies and experienced contractors in BIPOC and lower-income neighborhoods, for instance, and programs are designed for homeowners with high credit scores and access to financing. Our objective is to ensure that the voices of frontline communities are not only heard, but are prominent, and that they are not only the recipients, but the architects of an equitable clean energy future.”

A beta version of the Framework is set to launch in early 2022. Envisioned as an “off the shelf” guide, the Framework will consist of a set of text documents, spreadsheets, and an interactive website with user support provided via phone and email. Ultimately, the Energy Equity Project aims to contribute to how policies and programs are designed, how the benefits of decarbonization are distributed, and how the burdens of dirty energy are lifted.

Register for the Energy Equity Project kickoff webinar on June 9 or 17, 2021

Group lays groundwork for equity metrics framework

In 2018, about 40 people gathered to lay the groundwork for development of a standardized approach to collecting, reporting and utility demographic variables to improve equity in clean energy programs.  Coming out of that gathering, several staff from VEIC, Efficiency for Everyone, Urban Institute, GHHI, and Energy Trust of Oregon took on 3 tasks:  1) Identify model approaches from equity assessment in non-energy fields like housing and education; 2) Identify model approaches from equity assessment in the clean energy industry; and 3) Identify an institution to develop an equity assessment tool.