Flexibility in an Inflexible System: What COVID-19 means for energy access and equity

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In a nutshell:  
– States across the country, including Minnesota, are taking unparalleled measures to protect utility customers. 
– The acute circumstances are shedding light on the systemic inequities present within our current energy system. 
–  The system has proven that it can change. We must continue on this path toward access and equity for all after the crisis has passed.  

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, we’re learning that historically inflexible systems can suddenly become flexible. Systems can change, as long as there is the will to do so.  From energy and water utilities, to housing, to small business and worker supports, longstanding rules and regulations have been suspended, relaxed, or completely eliminated in the name of supporting individuals and families during these trying times. 

In our work, we’ve been encouraged to see states across the country taking extraordinary action to protect energy and water customers amid COVID-19, among them: 

  • Colorado: Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order directing the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to work with all public utilities to suspend service disconnections and waive reconnection fees for residential and small business customers, develop guidance and programs regarding payment assistance for under-resourced customers, and work with delivered fuels providers to mitigate customer impacts related to COVID-19. 
  • Connecticut: The state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority issued a ruling directing all regulated electric, natural gas, and water companies to cease residential service disconnections for nonpayment during the public health emergency. 
  • Iowa: The Iowa Utilities Board issued an emergency order directing all electric and natural gas utilities to cease residential disconnections due to nonpayment until May 1. The Iowa Department of Human Rights also extended the application deadline for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to May 31. 
  • Maryland: Governor Larry Hogan issued an executive order prohibiting all electric, gas, water and sewer, and telecommunications companies from terminating residential service or collecting late fees for the duration of the state’s emergency declaration. 
  • Ohio: The Public Utilities Commission directed all public utilities to review their disconnection policies and promptly seek any necessary approval to suspend otherwise applicable requirements and extended the state’s winter reconnection order through May 1. 
  • Virginia: The State Corporation Commission ordered the suspension of service disconnections to any customer of electric, gas, water, or sewer utilities subject to its Order
  • Wisconsin: The Public Service Commission directed water, electric, and natural gas utilities to cease disconnecting residential customers for nonpayment until the state public health emergency has been lifted and ordered utilities to make reasonable attempts to reconnect service to previously disconnected residential customers. 

Many of the actions listed above are key tools in the toolbox for decision-makers in Minnesota to consider. Although many utilities in Minnesota have already voluntarily taken action, it is important that customers throughout the state are protected from disconnections and any disconnected customers are safely reconnected as soon as possible. Following the disconnection suspension period, customers should have a reasonable grace period prior to collection on balances owed, and all late fees and credit penalties should be waived. Customers should also be offered additional information regarding energy assistance programs (such as LIHEAP) available to them and afforded additional opportunities to enroll. As Minnesota explores its own statewide response to COVID-19, we have an opportunity to root our policy solutions in best practices and lessons learned from other states. 

“…there can be flexibility in historically inflexible systems. Systems can change, as long as there is the will to do so.”

The actions being taken right now are a crucial first step—we must take action to make sure Minnesotans are protected during this unprecedented time—but we must also acknowledge that for many Minnesotans, these circumstances won’t end with the COVID-19 crisis. Under-resourced customers will still struggle to pay high utility bills. Renters will still face a significant need for safer, healthier, and more affordable housing. Communities of color and under-resourced customers will still face disproportionately higher air pollution and environmental hazards in their communities.

The acute circumstances of this crisis are shedding light on how we must start thinking about our energy system for the long-term: that is, having the will to remove systemic barriers to ensure that all Minnesotans truly benefit. 

“…will we use this unprecedented time to deeply examine our current practices and challenge ourselves to improve the system in order to improve the lives of all Minnesotans?”

When the COVID-19 crisis ends, will we return to business as usual? Or will we use this unprecedented time to deeply examine our current practices and challenge ourselves to improve the system in order to improve the lives of all Minnesotans? What steps are we willing to take to ensure that all Minnesotans have access to safe, reliable energy and water utility service and stable housing without fear of disconnection or eviction at all times, not just in times of crisis? How are we willing to rethink energy efficiency programs and access to renewable energy to reduce energy burden and improve housing stock for those who need it the most? How can we reimagine our transportation system and built environment to ensure that everyone, regardless of income, race, or physical ability, has the ability to travel safely and without suffering from increased air pollution in their communities? What opportunities can we unlock for family-supporting careers in the clean energy sector, for Minnesotans from Fergus Falls to Frogtown? 

The health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are real, and it is critical that we take them seriously. But we must also acknowledge the very real, ongoing impacts of systemic inequities—many of which have been unveiled through this crisis—and the energy system’s role in them. 

We at Fresh Energy have been heartened by the actions taken by utilities throughout the state to serve their customers’ needs during this time, the response from our partners in the housing sector to ensure that everyone has stable housing, and priorities raised by decisionmakers statewide to ensure that individuals and families aren’t left behind. But once the pandemic ends, we must turn this volatility into an inflection point for our expectations of the energy system. The system has proven that it can change and Fresh Energy is committed to helping our energy and transportation systems become more accessible and equitable for all but we’ll need your help. Stay tuned to our blog, Twitter, and Facebook for updates.