Washington, DC - The economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic is projected to plunge 20% of families into utility bill debt over the next four months as layoffs and other economic losses continue throughout the country. The average household pays more than $250 per month for critical utilities, and over a four month period of non-payment average household debt to utilities would mount to almost $1,100, new research from Vote Solar finds. This amounts to $26 billion in total utility bill debt over four months. 

“Coronavirus is supercharging existing, systemic inequities in the fabric of our society. For families that under non-pandemic conditions are struggling to pay for basic services like heat, water and electricity, now, all at once, timely payment is not an option,” said Tyler Fitch, Vote Solar Regulatory Manager and lead author of the report. “We must act now to ensure that everyone has the basic services they need to stay home and stay healthy. We also must ensure that families hit hardest by this pandemic are not left with almost $1,100 in utility bill debt and disconnection notices.”

As Congress considers its next stimulus aid package Vote Solar is calling for an immediate end to all shut-offs through the end of shelter-in-place orders. Based on this new research, Vote Solar estimates that a national program to eliminate utility bill debt caused by the pandemic will cost $27.1 billion, including costs to administer the program. Vote Solar is calling for stimulus funds to erase these debts.

However, utility bill debt and affordability have burdened low-income and environmental justice communities well before the pandemic. Vote Solar is also advocating for long-term solutions including: 1) utility data reporting on customer arrearages and deferred disconnections; 2) innovative arrearage management plans, set according to customers’ ability to pay; 3) targeted, effective demand-side management programs for low-income households; and 4) clean energy programs like rooftop and community solar that reduce bills in the long term and address the causes of high utility burdens. 

“Now is the time to ensure we rebuild better, with affordable utility access and a clean slate for those in need,” said Melanie Santiago-Mosier, Managing Director of Access and Equity at Vote Solar. “A coronavirus economic recovery strategy that invests in clean energy will help lower electric bills for all customers, making our most vulnerable communities more resilient to economic crises while creating jobs, driving local economic investment and improving public health.”

Vote Solar used the national residential energy consumption survey that provides customers’ monthly utility bills across electricity, gas, water and wastewater, and broadband. The analysis estimates that 20% of all households will be unable to pay their utility bills for four months, based on estimates of unemployment through 2020 and consistent with the timing indicated by national legislation to support disrupted households. The budget to administer a program that addresses these arrearages is based on expert opinion.

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