Briana Leone, Morgan Sarao, James Adams, Andrew Rosenthal, and Ali Kenner. "Research Brief - September 4th, 2020." Energy in COVID-19. The Energy Vulnerability Project. Platform for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography. Retrieved from https://housingenergy.info/?q=content/energy-covid-19-comprehensive-augu...
August has seen a series of events that have led to an increase in already existing vulnerabilities, on top of the ones highlighted, reproduced, and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the end of June, unpaid utility bills accounted for $479 million dollars, increased since then. The amount of unpaid bills here cites demonstrates a continued struggle faced by many families across the United States as the pandemic’s numbers continue to rise and hit the population. In a band-aid effort to prevent an economic precipice, state regulatory commissions took the initiative to place moratoriums on utility bill payments. However, companies like PECO, have said the moratoriums work to encourage families not to pay their utility bills. As such, many utilities have asked the regulatory commission to end the moratorium and encourage customers to seek out payment plans. Currently, rate of payment plan request sits at 2% of the companies customer base. That said, it is important to think of ways in which companies are completely disregarding the current needs of their customers and are, instead, placing their business needs before the socioeconomic needs of their client base. Clearly, the pandemic has created socioeconomic and health difficulties for everyone and there is little certainty on how and where this pandemic might take us, nor when it will end. As such, while utilities’ plead for an end to the moratorium may be selfish, it is also sound to think of ways in which more structured and effective policies could be implemented to safeguard the survival of many families in the United States.
This article is one of the many articles released throughout the course of the pandemic detailing the extreme hardships faced by many families in the United States. Important to note is the fact energy insecurity was already a problem for many families prior to the pandemic but, as COVID-19 swept the nation’s socioeconomic and health resources, many other families have recently fallen into an energy insecure threshold. As moratoria across states are set to expire soon, shutoffs will sweep the nation but will also not be equally felt. Generally speaking, black families are twice as likely to be shutoff when compared to their white counterparts, a 2018 California study by TURN found. Additionally, the study also found 62% of Latino families live in zip codes with the highest shutoff rates, despite accounting for roughly ⅓ of PG&E’s service. The foregoing could be a product of several intersecting factors, but it is also documented that there exists great disparities between white communities and communities of color. Many low-to-moderate-income families don’t know their options and the bill assistance provided by utilities is provided to only 1% of eligible households. Additionally, even though assistance exists, it is run differently in different states and it is up to the individual customers and families to seek out to their utilities. Even though programs like Lifeline, TANF, and LIHEAP exist to provide assistance, they work on a ‘first-come-first-serve’ basis and they also require applicants follow very precise criteria that, even though loosened during COVID-19, many households find difficulties in or are discouraged from applying.
For the full report by Carbon Switch please click here.
For the full 2018 California report please click here.
Calma, J. (2020, August 10). "Power outages after Tropical Storm Isaias were a warning to utilities." The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/21361751/tropical-storm-isaias-power-outages-tr.
Gates, Bill. 2020. “COVID-19 Is Awful. Climate Change Could Be Worse.” Blog. Gatesnotes.Com. August 4, 2020. https://www.gatesnotes.com/Energy/Climate-and-COVID-19
Graham, K. A. (2020, August 18). "Philadelphia and Comcast's digital equity plan will provide free internet to low-income families." Retrieved from https://www.inquirer.com/education/comcast-free-internet-access-students..
Hanna, M. (2020, August 28). "Hite says as many as 18,000 Philly district students still need internet access, with days to go until the start of school." Retrieved from https://www.inquirer.com/education/free-internet-philadelphia-school-dis
James, I. (2020, August 7). "Without action on climate change, heat is projected to become major global killer." AZ Central. Retrieved from https://eu.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-environment/2020/08/05...
Leonhardt, M. (2020, Aug 27). "Nearly 35 million households will lose their utility shutoff protections over the next month." Make it. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/27/millions-of-households-will-lose-their-u...
Maykuth, A. (2020, August 20). "Unpaid utility bills are soaring in the pandemic. Consumer advocates fear mass shutoffs loom." The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from https://www.inquirer.com/business/pennsylvania-covid-utility-shutoff-ter...
Nabukalu, C. (2020, August 19). "Why the District of Columbia is a leader in energy efficiency." GreenBiz. Retrieved from https://www.greenbiz.com/article/why-district-columbia-leader-energy-eff...
Roos, O. (2020, August 7). "Connecticut residents still in the dark days after Isaias, as officials criticize utility companies' storm response." NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/connecticut-residents-still-dark-da.
Sanchez, B. (2020, August 21). "Monthly U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in April were the lowest in decades." Energy Information Administration. Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=44837
Sisk, A. R. (2020, Aug 24). "Standing Rock developing wind farm near Fort Yates." Retrieved from https://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/standing-rock-developing-wind-farm-near-fort-yates/article_68f6f745-3164-5d0b-ac8b-b7aaacd773c5.html
No other event like the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the covert and multiplicitous vulnerabilities that exist in our society. This does include internet access across the country. Disparate access to internet has been negatively reflected in classroom attendance and homework completion, particularly for low-to-moderate income households. The following articles discuss internet access as specifically tied to the Philadelphia area. In an effort to provide internet to those families in Philadelphia not having access to Internet, the city has partnered with Xfinity and T-Mobile to provide low-cost internet access and hotspots, respectively. The plans offered should last the entire year, given the city has moved online for this academic year. The $17 million dollar plan is being made possible thanks to a combination of local donors and local dispatch of CARES Act funds. However, the program is only applicable to those households who have one or more children enrolled in public or charter schools. Households without children or with students enrolled in university do not qualify, theoretically. Nevertheless, the foregoing actions on the part of the city and the internet utility should be seen as a first step towards closing the digital divide.
While the Comcast Internet-connect program is a great idea, few days before the beginning of the school year the School District has communicated there are still 6000 devices left over to pick up. Whether these devices are chromebooks or hotspots has not been specified but it means that potentially 6000 households are still not connected days before school begins. Interestingly enough, also, is that neither the School District nor the Internet companies know exactly how many people are yet not connected to the digital grid. For the households who did pick up materials to get connected, a customer line has been created to direct internet installation. New customers can call 211 to have their internet be activated. The overall goal, however, is to bring the drop in student attendance back up by giving those who could not attend virtual learning a chance to participate and continue their studies.
In other energy-related news, one sector of the economy that has seen a surge in projects pertains to projects addressing energy efficiency investments. Many are advocating for energy efficiency to be included in city planning and in discussions of environmental actions. Energy efficiency planning also creates avenues for employment and improvements in health, which are desperately needed as we face the brunt of climate change and persisting COVID-19 pandemic. The best solution is to improve buildings' stock, given they account for 1/3 of United States energy consumption. Square footage and purpose also determine building occupancy and energy use. According to guidelines published in January, buildings over 50,000 sqft will need to meet minimum efficiency standards. Even before these standards were implemented, retrofits have been conducted independently on many older buildings across the nation. Washington's energy-efficiency practices focus on the health and wellbeing of city residents. Healthcare facilities will most benefit from retrofits given they improve air quality and overall building environment. Standard rebates are being publicized to incentivize energy efficiency upgrades, mainly as rate-payers are billed a surcharge that goes into trust funds that support energy efficiency projects. However, while the foregoing effort is remarkable, we do have to think about the burden that is placed on consumers, rather than for-profit utilities and agencies, to transition to energy efficiency cities. Questions to think about are: with the persisting pandemic and reduced incomes, how well will families be able to cope with efficiency investments? Which populations will be discouraged from spending on efficiency improvements?
In an unprecedented investment, tribal nation Standing Rock, has created their own public utility, SAGE, to gain more oversight into the realization of a solar wind farm project. The project, meant to cost $325 million, is predicted to take two years to come to completion. While funding seems to be a problem, mainly as SAGE doesn’t have the entirety of the money needed for completion, the tribal community utility plans to find investors and developers willing to fund the project but having the tribe’s interest and values. That said, we can think of Standing Rock’s move to a public utility and creation of a wind farm as one of the ways in which tribes across the United States are pushing for more sovereignty, especially over green power. Sovereignty is often contested between the federal government and tribal governments, as is recounted in Dr. Powell’s Landscapes of Power. All in all, the tribe also hopes enough power will be generated for others to purchase it, thus, making the farm also a source of revenue and not simply of power generation. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its toll on all walks of life (social, economic, political, and healthwise), many ‘green projects’ have been moving forward with their plans. Perhaps, the foregoing is because of a series of factors that include COVID-19, climate change, and unemployment, which may be pushing efforts to start, continue, or finish projects meant to transition us away from fossil fuels.
As the pandemic continues, energy entities like the EIA continue to monitor energy consumption and emissions. According to the EIA, CO2 emissions in April dropped significantly with respect to other years. However, this can be attributed largely to the closures of coal-producing factories, as can be seen in the graph. When it comes to petroleum-related CO2 emissions, though, the drop registered isn’t necessarily to be attributed to closing petroleum-based energy-producing establishments but, rather, to a shift towards wind, solar, and natural gas. That said, even where petroleum-based CO2 emissions dropped, levels of CO2 emissions resulting from petroleum were registered to be slightly higher than natural gas-related CO2 emissions. Despite the good portions of reduced emissions specifically in the month of April, it is important to acknowledge that a fractional reduction will not revert the effects of climate change and it is important to strive towards even more reductions in emissions, perhaps through net-zero buildings and energy systems. Additionally, the graph here shown pertains specifically to the month of April; it would be interesting to see how emissions fare throughout the months of persisting pandemic restrictions and stay-at-home orders.
The end of July and the beginning of August saw a series of catastrophic events, beyond the already disastrous COVID-19 pandemic, ravage the United States. From the continued economic downturn in the United States and difficulties faced by families who cannot meet their monthly bills, to facing the brunt of climate change as Isaias swept the nation, to coping with wildfires, the United States continues to face a period of depression, at levels worse than any seen before. Topics of discussion that follow include the continued threat of utility shutoff for many families, ravaging climate change, comparable efforts to lead energy efficiency practices, and efforts to secure internet to households as school is set to begin again.
As several recent calamities have demonstrated, climate change is only worsening and it is reaching a point of no return, if not already reached. Several simulations have revealed climate change will contribute to such a drastic change in climate we will face more deaths by heat than by infectious disease. In fact, by 2100 it is estimated heat will kill 74 per 100,000 people, which is almost at the 2018 levels of death for all infectious diseases (73 per 100,000). If we do not change our ‘business as usual’ mentality, we will likely faced dire and unchangeable consequences, that will also worst affect those regions and countries that are not responsible for the greatest emissions that have led to our current predicament. What scientists have also predicted is the continue disparities between industrialized and non-industrialized countries, mainly noting how the economic superpowers of the world (which will include the United States), will likely be able to reinvest in green energy, leaving many non-industrialized countries behind in their socio-technical environments, as well as leaving many countries to face the scorching, deadly changes in climate that have already been manifesting recently. As is narrated by articles below, climate change is now and we need a today solution, not a tomorrow-one.
In an extension of the points addressed by the previous article, Bill Gates’ blog talks about the heightened risks of death we face beyond those brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. From estimations made to this day, deaths by COVID-19 stand at 14 per 100,000, where death by side effects of climate change are expected to reach 73 per 100,000 in the next 40 years, at least for the worst-case scenario predictions. Gates invokes everyone to think consciously about the actions we need to take to combat these negative effects, particularly when it comes down to greenhouse gas emissions. It is in our interest, the billionaire alludes to, to reduce emissions drastically as a change in emissions is also predicted to reduce death climate change to 10 per 100,000. As Gates points out, despite our reduced travel this year, we continue to emit 92% of the greenhouse gases, which is a more than significant amount of pollution created at our own hands. What’s important to think about, though, is Gates’ subtle allusion to reduce consumption on the part of households, investing in efficiency, also disregards the disproportionate levels of energy consumption across socioeconomic classes, as well as these households’ abilities to invest in efficiency improvements. Overall, however, we should really take Gates’ recommendations to heart and follow scientific guidelines, create household- and country-specific solutions, and start implementing change as early as possible, which is now.
As if not already facing the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to shelter in place, the Northeast the Mid-Atlantic have witnessed a disastrous storm that has left millions without power and, in worse case scenarios, without their homes. Many families have had to decide whether to stay in their homes without power to protect themselves from COVID-19 or choose to find refuge in shelters and be exposed to the virus. Those households facing the worst predicaments were ones with family members suffering from chronic illnesses like asthma, diabetes, hypertension, who faced the worst repercussions from a combination of lacking power and heat side effects. Thinking of the storm that hit the entire East Coast, many state representatives have called out grid vulnerabilities that have contributed to the widespread devastation following Isaias. That said, beyond the strength of the storm, some state impacts could have been less serious had utilities invested in better and more resistant grid systems. One option that was proposed was to use a smart grid system, that would allow blackouts to be locked in the quadrant hit by lightning without spreading to other quadrants as happens now. Implementing these types of grids, however, should be done with equity in mind, and reinvestment in poor neighborhood grids should be prioritized. As if not already highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Isaias has continued to expose the covert vulnerabilities faced by many low-income, often black and brown, communities in the United States.
Isaias has ravaged through the East Coast like no other storm this season. Starting out as a hurricane, then dying down to a tropical storm, Isaias has caused more damage than what was predicted. Many state representatives have denounced the utilities’ poor responses to the storm, specifically many representatives, like Cuomo, have criticized utilities’ underestimation of Isaias’ damage. Companies like Eversouce Energy and United Illuminating had categorized the storm at one or even two levels lower than what it ended up being, leaving thousands of households without power for longer than they should have been had the utilities correctly classified the storm. The article specifically blames the utilities’ old transmission lines and highlights the systems’ ages as correlating to extant vulnerabilities to damage and outages by storms like Isaias. Much like in the other article, many Connecticut residents now have to face double the disaster, the one created by COVID-19 and the one created by tropical storm Isaias. In underlying and persistent pattern COVID-19 continues to intersect and compound with occurring calamities, worsening already existing vulnerabilities.