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Opinion: Give state regulators the power to lower electric bills

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

Bills before the General Assembly would let the State Corporation Commission lower electricity bills when utilities overcharge customers and prevent companies from shutting off utilities due to missed payments during emergencies and extreme weather.

February 1st, 2023

Kimberly Dyke Harsley, Brandy Faulker and Connie Wright-Zink

February 1st, 2023 - In late December 2022, all Virginians faced below freezing temperatures for several days in a row. Some people lost power due to outages. They didn’t know when their power would be restored, but they took comfort in the fact that eventually it would be. Energy burdened Virginians whose power is shut off because they cannot pay high utility bills face much greater uncertainty and stress. They worry about how they will be able to afford to have their power turned back on and how they will manage without it during extreme temperatures. Losing power during very cold or hot days can be lethal, especially for older people, young children, people with disabilities, and people with medical conditions requiring access to electricity. Shutoffs also expose households to evictions, job loss, and mental health impacts.

Virginia Organizing, along with partner organizations across the state, has heard countless stories of families struggling with high bills and shutoffs. Already too many Virginia households – some 25 percent according to the Residential Energy Consumption survey – are energy insecure. They reduce or forgo food or medicine to pay their energy costs; they leave their homes at unhealthy temperatures; they receive shutoff or stop delivery notices; or, they are unable to use heating or air conditioning equipment. They may be renters and have little control over the types of appliances they use or the amount of insulation in the walls. They may be older or live with a disability and are on fixed incomes. They may live in urban areas in heat islands and contend with higher temperatures. Or they may live in rural areas and have older homes in need of weatherization.

In fact, energy burden is highest for low-income households, for rural households, and for people of color. In Virginia, low-income households spend on average 10.4 percent of their income on energy bills, while the average energy burden for higher income households is only 2.3 percent. Low-income homes are often less efficient and require costly repairs before they can be weatherized, making high bills unavoidable. Available energy assistance programs from the government or investor-owned utilities like Dominion Energy are unable to meet the need. Less than 12 percent of families living at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level received assistance in Fiscal Year 2021.

When a household’s power is shut off, getting it turned back on can be costly due to reconnection charges, required security deposits, late fees, and penalties. This puts families further into debt and continues the cycle of poverty. For example, a Dominion customer must pay a reconnection charge of $22.27 during business hours or $57.60 outside business hours, possibly a security deposit equal to two months’ service, and a late payment charge of 1.5 percent on their overdue balance in addition to reconciling their late bills. Customers of rural electric cooperatives can face reconnection charges from $40 to $170 in addition to collection fees. Quickly, a household that was already behind on its bills now must come up with hundreds of dollars more to have power restored.

A household isn’t energy insecure just because it can’t pay its bills. Rather, energy insecurity is a product of the type of home a household inhabits and its condition, local economic opportunity, physical and mental health, increasing energy costs, and access to available assistance. Virginia is one of only seven states in the country without shutoff protections against cold and hot weather. Providing better protections against utility shutoffs is a critical measure to reduce energy burden and increase energy security immediately.

The General Assembly has an opportunity to do something about this. Senator John Edwards has introduced commonsense legislation — SB 1447 — to protect families from dangerous utility shutoffs during public health emergencies and extreme weather. Additionally, Delegates Lee Ware and Rip Sullivan and Senators Jennifer McClellan and Creigh Deeds have co-sponsored the Affordable Energy Act (HB 1604 and SB 1321). This bill will restore regulatory authority to the State Corporation Commission to lower electricity bills for millions of Virginians when utilities overcharge customers.

Virginia Organizing members — from Lee County to the Eastern Shore — call on our legislators to do right by working families by passing these bills. They represent important first steps in addressing the painful effects of Virginia’s high energy burden on our communities across the state.

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