June 21, 2024

Every year, almost 1.3 million households across the country turned off their electricity because they cannot pay their bill. Besides risking the health, or even lives, of those who need that energy to power medical devices and inconveniencing people in countless ways, power loss poses a serious threat during a heat wave or cold snap.

Such disruptions tend to Black and Hispanic families are disproportionately affecteda point underscored by a recent study that found that customers of Minnesota’s largest electric utility who live in communities of color more than three times as likely to experience foreclosure than those in predominantly white neighborhoods. The finding, by researchers from the University of Minnesota, held even when accounting for income, poverty level and home ownership.

Energy policy researchers say they consistently see similar racial disparities nationwide, but a lack of empirical data to illustrate the problem is hampering efforts to address the problem. Only 30 states require utilities to report disconnections, and some of them provide only a handful of data that reveal where they happen. As climate change brings warmer temperatures, more frequent cold snaps and other extremes in weather, energy analysts and advocates for disadvantaged communities say understanding these inequities and providing equitable access to reliable power will become increasingly important.

“The energy system as currently designed has failed to adequately serve all customers,” said Shelby Green, a researcher at the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute. “Economically disadvantaged and minority people’s lives will be the lives most threatened.”

The research in Minnesota, led by Bhavin Pradhan and Gabriel Chan, found that households of color served by Xcel Energy experienced disproportionately more shutdowns and more frequent outages. Between 2020 and 2022, neighborhoods with the highest concentration of people of color were 47 percent more likely than other areas to lose power for more than half a day.

Pradhan told Grist he was surprised to find that those racial differences held up even over a period of several years. “It wasn’t just one year where there was an increase, but consistently over time,” he said. The team analyzed data for groups of several hundred households from 2017 to 2022—a level of spatial detail that allowed them to isolate the effect of race at a neighborhood level. Xcel Energy noted that its own grid share analysis found similar racial disparities in shutdowns and outages. But the utility emphasized the age of a house as an equally important factor for prolonged outages, and largely attributed cutoffs to a client’s income. In a submission to the public utilities commission, the company noted that “disconnects are correlated with poverty, and—for a variety of deep-rooted economic and social reasons not driven by the energy system—poverty is correlated with race.” It added that the utility offers programs to help customers cover their bills.

Erica McConnell, staff attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, countered that the utility’s own disconnection data proves those efforts are insufficient. Xcel Energy is currently updating a five-year plan future network investments, a process McConnell says provides an opportunity for the utility and regulators to invest in communities disproportionately affected by shutdowns and outages. The center and other organizations also called on the state Public Utilities Commission to consider reinstating a moratorium on disconnections, imposed at the height of the pandemic, until it can determine how best to address these disparities. to speak

One potential measure that could help is the expansion of community solar, battery storage and other distributed energy sources. The University of Minnesota study found that the communities that bear a disproportionate burden of shutdowns and outages also have the greatest ability to host to small-scale clean energy projects such as rooftop solar — a point McConnell echoes.

“Historically, a lot of communities haven’t had access to those kinds of programs,” she said. In the long term, distributed energy resources that “encourage community ownership and wealth building can be a valuable way to address the issue” by ensuring that residents access to cheap, reliable power.

Green, the researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute, noted that rather than simply pointing to broader issues, utilities like Xcel Energy should look at how their operations may perpetuate or reinforce existing inequities.

Minnesota’s study is one of a few that has documented the role that race plays in foreclosures. In Illinois, researchers found that from 2018 to 2019, electricity customers in predominantly black and Hispanic zip codes four times more likely to be disconnected than other areas, even when accounting for income and other factors. A national survey by researchers at Indiana University reached a similar conclusion: between April 2019 and May 2020, researchers found that black and Hispanic households about twice as likely to have their power turned off compared to white households.

Those who study energy insecurity are not sure exactly what causes such a strong correlation between race and foreclosures. Sanya Carley, a professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, cites two possible factors. One of them is energy burden, or the share of a household’s income spent on gas and electricity. The other is the age of their housing, as older buildings tend to be less energy efficient. But her team’s research found that these reasons accounting for only about 10 percent of the racial disparities found in utility foreclosures.

“There is something inexplicable about the energy experiences of Black and Hispanic households that needs to be identified to fully understand the prevalence of energy insecurity in these groups,” the study authors wrote. Green suggested that another factor may be implicit bias in utility operations. For example, a customer service representative may respond less leniently to a customer who lives in a community of color or a low-income area. But overwhelmingly, energy policy experts told Grist that more data is needed to understand the extent of racial disparities and the forces driving them. Carley noted that, unless required by law, most utilities do not voluntarily share data about disconnections. Only six states, including Minnesota, Illinois and California, require location data on utility shutdowns, usually at the zip code level. In most others that require reporting, utilities often share only the total number of disconnections each year. What’s more, those laws only apply to regulated, investor-owned utilities, meaning that municipal utilities or cooperatives may not share any data at all.

Energy justice advocates have long called for widespread requirements for utilities to report on shutdowns and who they impact. Pradhan, the co-author of Minnesota’s study, told Grist that access to such data could enable “more studies and more data-driven decision-making” about where and how utilities should invest in improving their grid and electricity service.

More urgently, say Carley, Green and others consumer protection against shutdowns can protect households from the brunt of life-threatening cut-offs. Already, 41 states prevent or restrict utilities from disconnecting customers during periods of extreme cold. But only 20 states, including Minnesota, have restrictions against shutdowns during periods of extreme heat — though that is starting to change. After a deadly 2021 heat dome over the Pacific Northwest, Washington lawmakers passed a law last summer prevent utilities from cutting power to customers on days when a heat-related warning is issued.

“Power and water can be a matter of life and death during a heat wave,” Washington State Representative Sharlett Mena said at the time. “This legislation will ensure that every Washingtonian has the ability to protect themselves from extreme heat.”

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