As Heatwave Blankets Nation, Utility Disconnect Policies Can Kill

July 22, 2019 | 6:00 am
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File
Joseph Daniel
Former Contributor

As temperatures increase, so does our reliance on things like air conditioning. That increased electric load can stress the grid, but it can also stress our pocketbooks with the increased use of A/C translating into increased electric bills.

Sadly, an increasing number of people in the United States struggle to pay their electric bills. When temperatures get high enough, not being able to pay your electric bill turns out to be a matter of life or death.

A deadly decision:

In almost every state, there is some sort of protection for consumers unable to pay their bills that prevent electric utilities from disconnecting customers from the grid. The most common reason for protection is for those with medical conditions or in case of illness.

Nearly every state (save Florida and Hawaii) have consumer protections when it comes to health and medical reasons.

States with protections against utility disconnect for health or medical reasons (in blue). 

The only two states that don’t have protections from utility disconnections: Florida and Hawaii.  Source: Union of Concerned Scientists analysis of Health and Human Services data.

Now, that isn’t to say that those laws and protections are perfect. In some states, the protection is only in the form of a delay in shutoff, in some states the customer must have a special doctor’s note on file with the utility.

Oftentimes, disconnects will occur and the burden of proof falls on the customer with a medical condition to get electricity reconnected. If you rely on an electronic medical device, such as a respirator, you may not have time.

When electricity gets shut off, people can die.

That was the case last year, after APS, the largest monopoly utility in Arizona, jacked up the bills of its residential customers.

Stephanie Pullman, a 72-year-old woman in Sun City West, was $51 short on her electric bill so APS shut off her power. A month later, temperatures in Arizona reached 107°F, and Stephanie died from a heat stroke. She wasn’t the only one, two other APS customers died after APS shut off their power, APS settled both lawsuits.

It also happened in New Jersey, when Linda Daniels died of congestive heart failure last summer. Linda’s death spurred the state to pass “Linda’s Law” which aims to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

Health vs heat.

While a great number of states have shutoff protections for those with health problems, as people face problems associated with heat, the same protections simply don’t apply. Only 9 states have temperature-based shutoff restrictions for extreme heat (many more states have temperature-based disconnects for temperatures below freezing). You can find a summary of all state’s utility shutoff and disconnect policies here.

States with utility disconnect protections based on temperature based limits. 

Only nine states have temperature based shutoff restrictions when extreme heat hits. Source: UCS analysis of Health and Human Services data.

Another six states—Arizona, Minnesota, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin—have restrictions for disconnects during “extreme heat,” but leave the threshold fuzzy (for example, when a heat emergency is declared).

Even if an official heat emergency is not declared, temperatures may be hot enough to be unsafe for heat-vulnerable populations like the elderly, pregnant women, the very young, and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

In Arizona, the threshold is not only ill-defined, but the decision is left up to utility commissioner’s judgment on what constitutes extreme heat.

Utility commissioners generally act as economic regulators, not public health regulators. Most are not informed or equipped to make decisions about the medical and health issues related to extreme heat.

In light of revelations of a dramatic increase in heat-related deaths and shutoffs—and sadly after the tragic story of Stephanie has made the news—the commission has taken action and halted future shutoffs.

In June, after considerable local pressure, the utility commission in Arizona decided to exercise its jurisdictional authority to end utility shutoffs and suspended all shutoffs until October 15th.

However, the moratorium excludes those electric providers that aren’t regulated by the commission. This is why advocates in Arizona say it shouldn’t be up to the commission’s discretion. Advocates like Stacey Champion say the state law should have mandatory protections.

When it comes to utility disconnects, we need science-based policies.

The science is clear, the hotter our summers get, the more the public will need protections.

Above 95oF sweating stops acting as an effective way of cooling the human body.

At heat index above 100oF, children, the elderly, and pregnant women are at risk of heat-related illness.

Some states have special protections for those groups, but many don’t. And none of them should need a doctor’s note to prove that they would suffer if they were to lose their ability to run an A/C or fans.

At 105oF, anyone can be at risk of heat-related illness or even death as a result of prolonged exposure.

As temperatures increase, so do the risks to our health. Source: Killer Heat in the United States (UCS).

As the effects of global warming intensify, cities across the US will experience weather that is literally off the (heat index) charts, which represents an extreme danger for all humans. To learn more about this, UCS has developed this handy online widget and interactive map.

As climate change worsens, summers will be getting longer and hotter. Cities and states that may not have had a need for shutoff protections due to heat may need them in the future.

The number of excessive heat days is avoidable if we act on climate change, but we must also implement policies to protect human health, human lives. Hopefully, we won’t need to be overly reliant on such safeguards, but better to have them because the alternative will be deadly for some.

Science-based policies today will prevent deaths tomorrow

A recent report by UCS details the just how deadly increasing extreme heat will become. Cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, Minneapolis, and Kansas City are all expected to see multiple days where the heat index will be off the charts. Many of those cities have never seen the heat index go off the charts.

Florida–which has no protections for electric customers–is going to be one of the hardest-hit states.

Meanwhile, while most states have protections for health emergencies, they don’t have temperature-based protections. But when the temperature is at or above 105oF, it is a health emergency for everyone.

Policies should be in place to ensure that they have uninterrupted power, especially to protect low-income households that may struggle to pay bills.

State utility regulators and legislators should require utilities to provide uninterrupted power service for residents—especially elderly adults, pregnant women, sick people, and people with disabilities—during periods of extreme heat.

Disconnect policies currently vary by state; some states do not have protections in place for periods of extreme heat. This patchwork of protections needs to be replaced with standards based on the science and research of public health professionals.

Policymakers should put into place safeguards to protect human health in case of heat emergencies, and utility disconnection banned during those times for any reason, including non-payment of bills. Science-based temperature thresholds should be set to eliminate any ambiguity or uncertainty to the process.

If you’re in the path of the heatwave this week, make sure to pay attention to alerts from local authorities and take protective actions to safeguard your health and the health and well-being of your friends and neighbors. Here are some resources that can help.