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. Despite being on staff for months now, she is still not on top of her bills, she said, and owes $1,400 to National Grid for her electric service and over $700 on gas bills from Con Edison. The two utilities hold a monopoly in Brooklyn, where she lives.
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. But the energy crisis is not limited to New York City. Households all over the state that get their electricity from utilities found their utility debt mounting over the winter. Now, as the weather warms, households in some counties have started to see power shutoffs, and advocates fear there may be many more to follow.
Exacerbated by the pandemic, the utility debt crisis has had a disproportionate impact on some of the most vulnerable groups, including low-income households and undocumented families. With more people staying home, whether because they are unemployed or working remotely, utility consumption has increased, and people have fallen behind on their payments. Earlier this year, customers also saw a 200 percent to 300 percent increase in their utility bills.
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. The debt level is even higher for Con Ed customers, averaging about $2,085 per residential household/customer.
At the beginning of 2022, Democratic state Senator Kevin S. Parker sponsored a bill that would extend the existing moratorium on utility shutoffs by amending the public service law. The bill would extend until June 30 shutoff protections for residential customers and small businesses experiencing financial hardship because of the pandemic.
“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). But some utility companies are moving faster towards terminating their services. “Customers are six times more likely to face shutoffs this year.”
More than 471,629 disconnection notices were sent out in April 2022 for residential customers across New York State, with Orange and Rockland counties leading the way, with 79 shutoffs that month. For commercial customers, there were more than 77,651 disconnection notices overall, with almost 2,544 already carried out. National Grid (KEDLI) had the highest number of service terminations, 882, followed by Con Edison at 831 terminations and National Grid (KEDNY) at 310. Residential terminations in March were at 131 and commercial terminations stood 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.”
In November 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration added 4.5 billion to the budget for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help families with their utility bills. The money, under the American Rescue Plan, is available until September 2022. New York State is also offering assistance to people who require energy relief. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) highlights several benefits which low-income households and families can apply for.
For example, depending on the income, household size and heating source, households that include someone under 6 years old or above 60, can apply for a HEAP benefit that covers utility bills, paying them directly to the vendor. HEAP also has an emergency benefit for situations in which residents are experiencing shutoffs or have received shutoff notices. Under the program, there are provisions for the repair or replacement of furnaces, boilers and 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. On May 2, assistance became available for cooling homes during the summer.
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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. The allocation is the largest in a single year since the program was 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.
But many of these subsidy programs exclude needy groups. HEAP, for example, requires that recipients be U.S. citizens or qualified aliens, making it virtually impossible for undocumented families to acccess benefits. Advocates say this can create a multigenerational cycle of debt.
Bureaucracy and a long lag time for benefits are also problems in the state programs. 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 then sent it through the post office, and upon following up, was told to contact the office again in late May or early June.
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 is asking for $1.2 billion in electric revenue and $500 million in gas revenue, twice the amount in 2019. That would mean a whopping 11.2 percent increase in electric bills and an 18.2 percent 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 need for assistance and relief for the most vulnerable groups is likely to continue. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, at least 25 percent of low-income households in New York City have a high energy burden, with more than 17 percent of their income going to their energy costs, a figure six times higher than the median energy burden for city residents.
Energy justice advocates pushed for $500 million in assistance in the state budget adopted on April 9, but the Legislature only approved $250 million 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. And they continue to make the case for a transition 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.”