By Eric Galatas
With winter just around the corner, Colorado’s communities of color and low-income families are disproportionately at risk of seeing their power cut off due to unpaid utility bills.
Thousands of jobs were lost in the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and energy use spiked during lockdowns.
Luke Ilderton, deputy director for Energy Outreach Colorado said this year’s unusually hot summer and high number of Air Quality Alert days due to wildfires have put additional strain on the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“Opening windows was not an option because of the hazard of the smoke and the particulate matter that was floating around,” Ilderton explained. “So that really added to some enormous electric consumption and bills, that now consumers are having to face because the moratoriums have been lifted.”
Ilderton said creating energy equity in Colorado, ensuring that all families can access essentials such as power and water regardless of their ability to pay, will take work.
Trust must be restored after families received alarming notices demanding payment, and Ilderton said his group is working to educate utility companies about the realities facing struggling residents.
Nearly 179 million Americans are at risk of losing service, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of the association, said there should be a basic universal guarantee that families can’t be shut off if they fall behind on their bills.
“We have to fund, adequately, programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program,” Wolfe advised. “It’s a very simple program. It’s essentially a block grant, and we help people pay their energy bills. So those are the kinds of things that I think of when I think of energy equity, and they’re all achievable.”
Ilderton noted utility companies have a financial incentive to keep customers connected. It’s expensive to send someone out in person to ensure that gas is turned off safely.
He said reaching out to companies directly to negotiate can stop the disconnection process before it gets started.
“I would strongly encourage them to reach out to their utility provider,” Ilderton urged. “Talk to them about what a payment plan might look like and what they might be able to afford, and the time they might need to pay back that debt.”
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