During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jen Chantrtanapichate, a climate justice organizer, fell behind on her utility bills after she lost her contract as a consultant.
“I was enrolled in autopay and paying all my bills on time before the pandemic,” Chantrtanapichate said, adding that her utility debt accumulated over the last two years. She stated that even though she has been on staff for months, she is still not in control of her bills. She owes National Grid $1,400 for her electric service, and Con Edison $700 for her gas bills. She lives in Brooklyn and the two utilities have a monopoly.
Similar tales of ballooning utility debt have been reported on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in other parts of Brooklyn and in Astoria and Ozone Park in Queens. The energy crisis does not only affect New York City. All across the state, households that get their electricity from utilities saw their utility debt increase over the winter. As the weather warms up, some households have begun to experience power shutoffs. Advocates fear that there may be more.
The utility debt crisis, which was exacerbated by the pandemic has had a significant impact on the most vulnerable groups, including low income households and undocumented families. Utility consumption has increased as people are more likely to stay home due to the fact that they are not working or are unemployed. People have also fallen behind in their payments. Customers also saw a 200 to 300 percent increase in utility bills earlier this year.
The utility companies attribute the hikes to their rising energy costs, especially the increased cost of natural gas, and insist that they’re doing everything in their power to control costs and support conservation and renewables. But activists like Chantrtanapichate—who, coincidentally, lives a few blocks from where National Grid is building a costly new natural gas pipeline she and other activists argue is neither needed nor wanted, in a neighborhood already disproportionately burdened by pollution—say that if climate change isn’t enough to make the utilities switch to lower cost renewables, the spiraling debt should be.
In March, New York’s utility debt surpassed $2.1 billion and it is still mounting, an upward trend utilities are seeing in every part of the state. According to WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an organization whose mission is to combat environmental racism and build healthy communities for people of color, 13 percent of all residential households—about 1,137,000 in total—are 60 days in arrears on their utility bills, with an average of $1,427.71 in debt. Con Ed customers have a debt level of $2,085 on average per residential household/customer.
Democratic state senator Kevin S. Parker introduced a bill to extend the existing moratorium regarding utility shutoffs, amending the public services law. The bill would extend the shutoff protections to residential customers and small businesses that are experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic up until June 30.
“The bill is intended to create a negotiating space for the most vulnerable,” said Richard Berkeley, Executive Director of the Public Utility Law Project (PULP). Some utility companies are moving quicker towards ending their services. “Customers are six times more likely to face shutoffs this year.”
In April 2022, more than 471,629 disconnection notifications were sent to residential customers in New York State. Orange and Rockland counties led the way with 79 shutoffs each month. Commercial customers received more than 77.651 disconnection notices, with nearly 2,544 of them already completed. National Grid (KEDLI), which had 882 service terminations, was followed by Con Edison (831 terminations) and National Grid(KEDNY) (310). March’s residential terminations were at 131, while commercial terminations were at 1,688.
Advocates fear that if there are more shutoffs by other utilities in the state in the coming days, some residents won’t have the air conditioning needed to stave off the summer’s often scorching heat, a life-threatening situation for some vulnerable people in the community.
“Most people who die of heat in summers are senior citizens or children,” said Jasmine Graham, the Energy Justice Policy Manager at WE ACT Environmental Justice. “Shutoffs in summers are as bad as winters.”
The Biden–Harris Administration boosted the budget for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), by 4.5 billion, in November 2021. This money was used to assist families with their utility bills. The American Rescue Plan allows for the availability of the money until September 2022. New York State also offers assistance to those who need energy relief. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance highlights the benefits that low-income families and households can apply for.
A household that includes someone below 6 years of age or above 60 can apply for a benefit from HEAP that covers utility bills and pays them directly to the vendor, depending on their income and household size. HEAP also provides an emergency benefit to residents who are experiencing shutoffs, or have received shutoff notices. There are provisions in the program for the repair and replacement of furnaces, boilers, or other equipment. New York City’s Waverly Job Center, part of the Department of Social Services, said that people had until April 29 to apply for HEAP benefits. Assistance was made available to cool homes during the summer on May 2.
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning coverage of climate free of charge and without advertising. To continue, we rely on donations from readers like yourself.
On April 21, the White House announced that it was adding another $385 million to the LIHEAP program to assist households with home energy needs, bringing the program’s total funding to $8.3 billion. This allocation is the largest in one year since the program was first established in 1981. At more than $36 million, New York’s share of the additional money is the largest, bringing the state’s total funding to over $918 million.
However, many of these subsidy programmes exclude needy groups. HEAP, for instance, requires that recipients are U.S. citizens and qualified aliens. It is virtually impossible for undocumented family members to access benefits. Advocates warn that this could lead to multigenerational debt.
Problems in state programs include bureaucracy and a long waiting time for benefits. Chantrtanapichate said she applied for HEAP in early January through the program’s app, but the Local HEAP office said they never received her application. She sent it through the office and was told to follow up in late May or early iunie.
In a move that is likely to drive more people into debt on their utility bills, Con Edison has proposed further rate increases for New York City’s customers. The company wants $1.2 billion in electric revenue and 500 million in gas revenue, which is twice the amount it requested in 2019. This would translate into a 11.2 percent increase for electric bills and an 18.2% increase in gas bills for the average New Yorker.
At public hearings last month, consumer advocates and elected officials blasted Con Edison’s proposed triple-digit rate hikes and called on Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York State’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve a plan that reduces bills for struggling New Yorkers and aligns with New York city and state climate laws.
“These increased utility costs are hurting thousands of New Yorkers,” wrote Democratic state Sen. Michael Gianaris, the Senate’s Deputy Majority Leader in a February letter to Rory M. Christian, chairman of the commission. “The PSC must look into this matter and do so with haste.”
The most vulnerable groups will need assistance and support. According to the American Council for an Efficient Economy, at most 25% of New York City’s low-income households have a high energy burden. More than 17 percent of their income goes to energy costs. This figure is six times greater than the city’s median energy burden.
The state budget approved on April 9 by the Legislature included $500 million in assistance for energy justice advocates. However, the Legislature only approved $250 millions for utility arrears. The advocates said they believe consumers’ utility debt needs to be canceled and paid for instead by shareholders’ profits and government funds. They are continuing to argue for a shift to renewable energy.
“We need the Public Service Commission to address the energy debt crisis and climate crises by making the utilities and their shareholders pay their fair share,” said Avni Pravin, Deputy Policy Director at Alliance for a Green Economy, an organization that works for safe and affordable energy in New York State. “We also need to start taking concrete steps towards a publicly-owned renewable energy system.”
Source: Inside Climate News