World Bank data assure us that 100% of people in the United States have access to electricity. Yet, as the Center for Biological Diversity reports, families in this country have had their electricity turned off more than 3.6 million times since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that figure only includes those served by public utilities in the 33 states and Washington, D.C., for which data are available. In the state of Washington, a moratorium on utility disconnections prevented public utilities from leaving customers in the dark. Still, those customers remained on edge each time the moratorium expiration date approached. Would they continue to have lighting and heating, or power for the internet service that had become vital for schooling and working during the pandemic? The governor had to act to extend the moratorium.
In 2022, the Washington Building Code Council adopted a new code that requires builders to install energy efficient electric heat pumps and hot water heaters in new commercial and large multifamily buildings; gas hookups will not be allowed (https://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/law/wsr/2022/02/22-02-076.htm). Governor Inslee has also signed legislation targeting 2030 as the year when all vehicles sold, purchased or registered in Washington state will have to be electric vehicles (Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5974, Chapter 182, Laws of 2022, 67th Legislature, 2022 Regular Session). While these measures will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, they will also add to the electricity burden for customers already struggling to pay their bills and at risk of disconnection. What can we do to ensure all residents of Washington have access to electricity today and in the future?
Who is most at risk of losing electricity access?
First, we need to understand which Washington residents are most at risk of losing access to electricity. In spring 2021, the Washington Utility and Transportation Commission (UTC) began to require investor-owned utilities to file quarterly reports detailing the number of customers with past-due accounts and the dollar amount of those arrearages. Matching those data with the U.S. Census American Community Survey Data gives us a peek into some of the characteristics of those unable to pay their electric bills. The analysis described here focuses on 25 zip codes with the highest total dollar amount of residential arrearages in 2021 and 2022 for the largest public electric utility serving Washington: Puget Sound Energy (PSE). PSE, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Puget Holdings LLC, serves approximately 1.2 million electric customers in the Puget Sound region of the state. Those 25 zip codes accounted for 38% of the dollar arrearages reported by PSE in March 2022.
Among the variables reported by PSE: The number of customers “who absent the disconnection moratorium would have been disconnected.” Forty-four percent of the residential customers who would have been disconnected had a moratorium not been in place resided in the top 25 of the 142 zip codes PSE serves. That suggests that residential disconnections tend to concentrate in a few places and are not evenly distributed throughout the service territory. What else can we glean about households in those zip codes?
First, when compared to Washington State in general, members of households whose electricity would have been disconnected are more likely to identify as people of color:
Next, for a subsample of 13 zip codes for which detailed census data are available, the median income ranges from just over $57,000 per year to $104,000 annually, as shown in Figure 2 below. Although many of the households do not fall below the federal poverty line ($27,750 for a family of four), most do fall well below the median household income level for the Seattle, WA, area. Quite a few of those zip codes have median household incomes above the median value for Tacoma, Washington. Looking solely at household income does not tell the entire story.
Census data reveal that some families have indeed fallen into poverty (Figure 3). The most striking information revealed in Figure 3 is the high poverty rate for households with a female head and no spouse present. Twenty to 45% of single female-headed households, and especially those with children under the age of 18, in these zip codes had fallen into poverty. Their electricity would have been turned off had there been no moratorium. The children would not have had access to online classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These data align with reports in the press about the financial straits of single parents. Some caregivers skip meals to be able to feed their growing children, switch to vegetarian diets as the cost of meat rises, take on extra jobs to make ends meet, and forego trips to the doctor or dentist. As budgets continue to get strained, will they be able to pay their electric bills?
Those most likely to fall behind in paying electric bills
What do these data tell us? While the sample size is admittedly small, the data come from only one part of Washington, and much more research needs to be conducted, this analysis reveals that people of color and families headed by single females tend to fall behind in paying their electric bills and thus may have their electricity disconnected. These groups are at risk now and could be at greater risk as the push away from fossil fuels and toward a society powered by green electricity continues.
First, as Stephen Tully (2006) argued, under international human rights law, access to electricity is a basic human right. As such, no household should have its electricity disconnected because of an inability to pay. We need to reexamine the business model that provides investor-owned utilities with a guaranteed rate of return. PSE has filed paperwork with the UTC requesting an overall rate of return of 7.39% in 2023, 7.44% in 2024, and 7.49% in 2025. The company has continued to pay dividends to shareholders and provide merit increases to executives at a time when thousands and thousands of customers may not be able to keep their lights on.
Enrollment barriers to electric bill assistance
In the meantime, we need to ensure that electric utilities increase their outreach to customers at risk of disconnection, helping them enroll in bill assistance programs. In March 2022, over 6,500 PSE residential customers had begun receiving bill assistance. However, that same month, more than 11,500 residential customers would have had their service disconnected had a moratorium not been in place.
One of the hurdles to receiving electric bill assistance is figuring out how to apply. Almost all programs require internet access, and most internet sites are in English—a problem for those whose first language is not English. Over 15% of households at risk of disconnection in the PSE service territory self-identified as Asian, and another 15% as Hispanic/Latino. PSE needs to do more outreach in Spanish and various Asian languages.
In addition, under the current regulations, customers wanting to prevent disconnections must:
- notify the utility of the inability to pay the bill, including a security deposit;
- provide self-certification of household income for the prior 12 months to a grantee of the Department of Commerce, who must then determine that the customer’s household income does not exceed the maximum allowed…;
- apply for home heating assistance from applicable government and private sector organizations and certify that any assistance received will be applied to the current bill and future utility bills;
- apply for low-income weatherization assistance…if such assistance is available for the dwelling;
- agree to enroll in and maintain a payment plan; and
- agree to pay the money owed even if they move.
The second bullet point underscores the focus on household income. However, as seen in Figure 2 above, household income level may not be a good indicator of an inability to pay bills. We need to take a more holistic approach to understand the situation of electric customers. What prevents them from paying their electric bills? A human rights perspective reminds us that “…consumers should not be deprived of the minimum essential level [of electricity] necessary to lead a life in human dignity…” (Tully, 2006, p. 33). Thus, how can we, as a society, ensure that all consumers maintain access to the electricity they need to survive and thrive in the modern world?
Breaking the cycle of poverty in vulnerable households
The data from this analysis highlight the vulnerability of households headed by females, especially those with children. We must establish programs to locate, establish trust with, and help those struggling families. If children under 18 lose access to the electricity needed for schooling and job searches, they will continue to lose ground scholastically and economically. To break the cycle of poverty, they need electricity. To participate in an electrified future, they need electricity.
Outreach is one step. Codifying restrictions on disconnections is another. For the past several sessions, energy justice advocates in Washington state have supported legislation that would, among other things, establish a year-round energy service shutoff moratorium for low-income households or households with people with disabilities. Unfortunately, even with that narrow target population, the bill languished in committee. Utility representatives expressed concern about the impact on their revenues. One hundred percent access to electricity in the United States? Not yet, but that remains the goal we continue to pursue.
 The World Bank. (2022). “Access to electricity (%) – United States.” Retrieved 6 May 2022 from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS?locations=US
 Jean Su and Christopher Kuveke. (2022). “Powerless in the Pandemic 2.0: Electric Utilities Are Still Choosing Profits Over People.” Center for Biological Diversity, BailoutWatch, and Tiger Moth LLC.
 Arrearages are the amounts of past due bills
 Alicia Wallace. (10 May 2022). “Skipping meals. Racking up debt. How inflation is squeezing single parents.” CNN Business. Retrieved 10 May 2022 from https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/10/economy/single-parent-inflation-economy/index.html
 Stephen Tully. (April 2006) “The Human Right to Access Electricity.” The Electricity Journal Vol. 19, Issue 3, pp. 30 – 39.
 Puget Energy, Inc. (31 December 2021). Form 10-K Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Retrieved 26 May 2022 from https://www.pugetenergy.com/pages/filings.html
 Rachel Hirsch and Jake Varn. (7 April 2021) “Broadband Access For Success In Postsecondary Education.” National Governors Association. Retrieved 26 May 2022 from https://www.nga.org/news/commentary/broadband-access-for-success-in-postsecondary-education/