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Opinion: How policymakers can tackle power shutoffs, utility greed and the climate emergency

The current utility business model is broken, racist and incompatible with the climate emergency. Utility companies have disconnected U.S. households more than 5.7 million times since 2020 while shelling out billions to shareholders and top executives, according to Powerless in the U.S., a report I co-authored with the Center for Biological Diversity and BailoutWatch. This report is the third installment in the Powerless in the Pandemic series, which tracks the worrying rise of utility shutoffs in the face of corporate profiteering that harms customers and the climate.

The op-ed broke down some of the findings from the report, but also laid out some key federal and local policy opportunities to begin improving the corporate utility system driving this chronic problem.

  • Require utilities to disclose disconnections data. The U.S. Energy Information Administration should create a federal disconnections database. State utility regulators should require monthly utility reporting on disconnections, including demographic data.
  • Ban utility shutoffs. Congress should enact a nationwide ban on the barbaric practice of utility disconnections for nonpayment. Governors, state legislatures and state regulators can enact permanent state moratoriums for customers who meet poverty criteria and can’t pay their bills.
  • Invest in debt relief measures. Utility debt has doubled since 2019 to a staggering $20 billion. Congress can forgive unpaid debt by taxing utility profits. State regulators should create income-based payment plans to prevent the buildup of cost from falling behind on utility bills.
  • Ditch the fossil fuel era for resilient clean energy and stop the utility profit grab. To rapidly transition to a resilient and just clean energy future, we need to stop fossil fuels at the spigot. Instead of expanding fossil fuel production faster than former President Trump, the Biden administration should stop all fossil fuel production. State utility commissions should also oppose utility efforts to block distributed solar and require utilities to shoulder the cost of fossil fuel price volatility. State legislatures should establish distributed rooftop and community solar programs, prioritizing environmental justice communities that suffer the brunt of the racist fossil fuel-energy system.

The preventable practice of disconnections keeps millions of Americans in poverty and narrows their avenues of escape. Our government and regulators must confront this fossil fuel-soaked energy system that shackles millions of families to a lifetime of debt while blocking access to desperately needed renewable energy solutions like rooftop solar.