After heatwaves, utilities disconnect more people due to nonpayment

Image of electrical power lines against a backdrop of a warm, orange sky.

While it’s going to be difficult for anyone to avoid any negative effects of our changing climate, the effects are going to be disproportionately felt by those least able to afford them. And this week brings more evidence that we’re already at the point where the poor are suffering from the growth in heatwaves that have come with the ever-rising global temperatures.

The work comes from UCLA, where three researchers were given access to data from the utility Southern California Edison, which serves over 15 million customers in (you guessed it) Southern California. The data indicated that low-income customers were more likely to be disconnected by the utility a couple of months after hot weather — a timing in keeping with the utility’s policy of giving customers time to pay. While the effect was small, it went up with each hot day, meaning extended heat waves will cause more severe problems for the poor.

Losing power

For their new paper, the researchers focused on participants in a program called the California Alternate Rates for Energy, which cuts the rate that low-income customers pay for their electricity. Keeping the lights on can be a struggle for these customers; previous studies have documented that many end up choosing between energy and food, and national surveys suggest over 10 percent of US households get a disconnection notice each year.

As is generally the policy, Southern California Edison customers aren’t disconnected the moment they fail to pay a bill. Instead, the company has a policy where shutoffs don’t occur until at least 53 days have passed since the end of an unpaid billing period.

The researchers did an experiment that validated the idea that rising energy costs increase the number of disconnections. The California Alternate Rates for Energy program requires that participants recertify their eligibility for the program every couple of years. For a variety of reasons, a significant number of customers (over 13 percent) fail to recertify, causing their rates to rise by 30 percent in the ensuing billing periods.

The average increase in the households affected by this is only $ 16.64. Yet these customers saw their disconnection rate per 100,000 customers rise from 246 to 318. That’s an increase of 72, or roughly 30 percent of the original rate. So, even though the change in costs is small in absolute terms, the impact appears to be felt more critically among people who struggle to manage expenses and may already be behind on their payments.

It gets worse

For their analysis of heatwaves, the researchers focused on days where the peak temperature rose above 35 ° C (that’s 95 ° F), well above the average daily maximum of 25 ° C (77 ° F). Those temperatures are likely to boost the use of air conditioners, and the test period ended before California had rolled out any pricing programs that encouraged the use of electricity during the mid-day peak of solar production.

Overall, they found that each additional day where temperatures went above 35 ° C boosted electricity use by a bit over a percentage, with bills going up by about 1.6 percent. For temperatures clearing 38 ° C, the added cost was nearly 3 percent.

There was no immediate effect on disconnects. But, if you incorporate a lag of 50 days to adjust for the utility policy of delaying disconnection, then each day above 35 ° C was associated with an increase in the disconnection rate by three households per 100,000 customers — a change of about 1.2 percent. Again, the per-day rate is extremely small, but heatwaves typically involve several days of abnormally high temperatures, and the extreme temperatures have often been significantly higher than 35 ° C.

The researchers also note that it’s not simply the cost of electricity that could fuel additional disconnects. Elevated temperatures may boost health risks and can interfere with some jobs, boosting other costs and potentially decreasing income. Under those circumstances, utility payments may end up being an item that’s sacrificed even if there are more significant changes elsewhere in the budget.

In what they refer to as a “back of the envelope” calculation, the team also used climate models and a high-emissions scenario to estimate what might happen if the utility’s customers faced the sort of climate that could happen by the end of the century . The estimate is that things would be roughly 10 times worse, with disconnects rising by over 10 percent. Obviously, the energy economy at the end of the century is going to look little like today’s, so it’s not clear how relevant this estimate is going to be (something the authors point out).

While the effects here are minor, heat waves are getting both longer and more intense. In September of this year, California saw temperatures in many areas get well above 40 ° C, and elevated temperatures lasted roughly 10 days. It would be informative to revisit this analysis with data that overlaps with that event.

Nature Energy2022. DOI: 10.1038 / s41560-022-01134-2 (About DOIs).

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