Table of contents
In August we took a break from writing about climate and energy efficiency solutions like heat pumps, home insulation, hybrid hot water heaters, and LED lighting and published a report that showed that millions of American households would soon lose utility shutoff protections, including millions of recently unemployed people and households under the poverty line.
Journalists at The Wall Street Journal, Time, CNBC, NPR, Politico, Quartz and many other media companies used the data from our report and wrote heartbreaking stories about the people that have already been affected by utility shutoffs.
In that first report we focused primarily on expiring utility shutoff moratoriums and how many households could lose electricity, gas, or water. We published very little data on how many households were disconnected because very little data existed.
But over the last month we’ve collected data from dozens of state utility commissions, public hearings, and utilities in order to fill some of those gaps. Over the coming weeks and months we plan to gather more data and continue to release it.
Here are the highlights from this report:
- 16 million households lost shutoff protections in September as moratoriums expired in 4 states. 2.3 million households in those states were below the poverty line before the pandemic began this year. Another 2 million people in those states are currently unemployed.
- In October another 11.5 million households will lose shutoff protections as moratoriums in 7 states expire. About 3 million households in those states were below the poverty line before the pandemic began this year. Another 3 million people in those states are currently unemployed.
- By the end of October 82 million households (68%) won’t have shutoff protections. 11 million of those households were below the poverty line before the pandemic began this year. About 10 million unemployed people live in those states.
- Early shutoff data suggests that millions of Americans could lose power this fall. In Georgia — one of the first states that shared their shutoff data with us — 22,210 customers were disconnected in August. That represents about 1% of their customers.
- Arrearages data suggests that tens of millions of American households are behind on their bills. In Wisconsin 31.3% of customer accounts were in arrears as of August compared to 12.2% same time last year. In Michigan the two biggest utilities have reported that between 38-47% of customers are behind on their bills.
Why we wrote this report
Carbon Switch produces research and guides that help people and communities live more sustainably. Our guides help people reduce their energy use with home improvement projects like installing a heat pump or improving their insulation. The guides also help people make decisions like whether to buy a tankless water heater, electric water heater, or a heat pump water heater, decisions that can lead to large amounts of emissions over time.
Through our research we saw the unjust utility shutoffs and energy injustice of the last few months and decided to write a series of reports uncovering data that was largely going unnoticed. Since its first publication the reports has been covered by outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Time, CNBC, and dozens more.
How many households have been disconnected?
In September we were able to obtain shutoff data for two states: Georgia and Illinois. We also found a presentation created by Wisconsin’s utility commission that showed how many customers the utilities in that state planned to disconnect beginning in October if the state hadn’t extended their moratorium.
In Georgia the PUC only collects data on Georgia Power, a utility owned by Southern Power that serves about two-thirds of the state’s households. According to a spreadsheet the PUC sent us, Georgia Power disconnected 22,210 residential customers in August. The same spreadsheet listed 2,282,827 customers which means that they disconnected about 1% of their customers in August.
In Illinois the PUC is currently tracking arrearages and shutoffs at the biggest investor-owned utilities (IOUs). According to a recent filing, Ameren Missouri (the state’s biggest utility), disconnected 4,950 customers in August (0.4%). The Illinois PUC required all IOUs to estimate how many customers they planned to disconnect between September 2020 and February 2021. Ameren estimated they will disconnect 42,190 customers.
In September Wisconsin’s PUC voted to extend their moratorium through the spring of next year. But prior to that decision they gathered data from utilities on arrears and planned disconnects. According to a presentation summarizing the findings, 31.3% of customer accounts were in arrears as of August compared to 12.2% same time last year. Utilities planned to disconnect 54,051 in October when the moratorium was set to expire. We Energies — the largest utility in the state — planned to disconnect 27,461 customers (1.2%).
Over the next month we expect to get disconnect data from the following states:
How many customers are behind on their bills?
One of the biggest challenges in reporting on arrearages and disconnects is the lack of data available. Prior to the pandemic most states weren’t tracking how many customers were behind on their bills or how often utilities were disconnecting them. Those that were publishing the data — states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts — were doing so using difficult to navigate databases called “dockets.”
So instead of being able to compare utilities and states using the same data, we’re stuck with a broken system of dockets, PDFs, and poorly organized spreadsheets.
As mentioned above, we’ve spent the last month collecting this data from utilities and state regulators. Below is a table documenting the percentage of customers in arrears at the utilities we were able to obtain data for.
While comparing utilities and states can yield interesting insights, it should be done with caution and skepticism since the reporting period is different in some cases and the data is collected by regulators in different states with different procedures and standards.
State moratorium and demographic data
Prior to September there were 27 states without moratoriums in place. In the month of September moratoriums expired in these 4 states:
- North Carolina – September 1st
- Tennessee – September 28th
- Rhode Island – September 30th
- Texas – September 30th.
In October moratoriums are set to expire in these 7 states:
- New Hampshire – October 1st
- Virginia – October 5th
- Minnesota – October 12th
- New Jersey – October 15th
- Washington – October 15th
- Vermont – October 15th
- Connecticut – October 31st
Below is a table with the moratorium status of every state, how many households were in poverty in those states prior to the pandemic, and unemployment data from each state:
Sources and notes
Status of state moratoriums
In our first report we used the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Map of Disconnection Moratoria but for this report we checked each moratorium status by going to the PUC or state’s website.
Household data by state
Utility shutoff data
- Georgia’s PUC sent us a spreadsheet with Georgia Power’s disconnect data
- Ameren Illinois’s data came from this public filing
- We found the Wisconsin data in this presentation we obtained from the PUC docket.
We found arrearage data for utilities in a number of different places including PUC dockets, public filings, industry presentations, and emailing PUC commissions with data requests. If you need access to any of this data email michael (at) carbonswitch.co
If you are a journalist and want access to any of the data used for this analysis or want to interview the author, please email michael (at) carbonswitch.co
About Carbon Switch
Carbon Switch is an energy efficiency startup that helps homeowners understand the carbon footprint of their home and identify ways to cut their energy use by as much as 50%.
We produce guides on the appliances that consume the most energy in a home like hot water heaters and recommend more energy efficient alternatives like a heat pump water heater, which can cut energy use by 80% and save homeowners about $5,000 over 10 years.
Later this year we’ll be launching an app that will help homeowners identify the energy efficiency upgrades that make the most sense based on their home and local climate. The app will also help homeowners find rebates and low-interest financing, something we hope will make these upgrades accessible to every homeowner no matter their income.
About the author
Michael Thomas is the Founder and Head of Research at Carbon Switch.
Prior to starting Carbon Switch, he contributed stories to magazines like The Atlantic, FastCompany, and Quartz. He’s also started a couple companies, one of which gives 50% of its profits to charity. The company expects to give away $200,000 next year.
He also has one of the most common names on planet Earth, which is why you will probably find more results for famous football players than the author of this paper on Google. This link to his LinkedIn will probably make things easier if you want to learn more about his background.