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There is no question that electricity has become a completely integrated part of our lives. But does that — and should that — make electricity a basic human right?

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recently released a report called Lights Out in the Cold, Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as if Human Rights Matter.  NAACP believes that electricity and its related services are a basic human right. Through their report, they provide evidence that supports this claim, stating that access to electricity is a critical component to the prosperity, safety and general well-being of every human being.

Utility Disconnection Policies

NAACP believes that utility disconnection policies across the United States significantly contribute to the issues residential customers face when it comes to losing access to power.

The purpose of these disconnection policies is to outline for the consumer the exact steps a utility company will take prior to disconnecting electricity. The major issue claimed here is that these policies become particularly problematic in situations where the consumer can’t afford to pay their bills. In particular, the report states that “The interests of these customers often compete with the interests of utility companies, regulators, and other utility customers.”

Current State Policies

To support the need for re-evaluating current disconnection policies, the report identified many different state policies that prevent electricity and electricity services from being a basic human right.

While there are policies that have been adopted by all states, there are some that have not. For example, before a customer’s electricity is disconnected, the utility company must call or write to inform the customer before the disconnection occurs. That being said, different states have different rules surrounding the actual disconnection process.  Some imply that they will not disconnect power during certain times during the week. Others state that they will not disconnect before or during a holiday.

When it comes to reconnecting power, there are fifteen states that do not outline any policy regarding reconnection fees. This means that it is up to the utility to decide how much someone has to pay to turn their power back on.

What about disconnection policies around different seasons, like winter or fall?  Many states will not disconnect a customer’s power if the temperature drops “below 32°F or above 95°F”, but again, this is not a countrywide standard. There are currently nine states that “Do not provide any state regulated seasonal protections for utility customers. These states include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Virginia.”

Electricity Assistance and/or Protection

NAACP states that “Eight states do not have regulations establishing standard protections for socially vulnerable groups. Among these states are: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Rhode Island.”

Many utilities in many states also charge a fee to reconnect services, but there are many states that offer customers a payment plan to help them pay their bills.

When it comes to medical protection, options are primarily offered to elderly or disabled consumers. In these cases, the utility requires a medical certificate. The medical certificate will help to keep the power on, but only for a defined period of time.

Impacts of Current Polices on Human Rights

According to the report, the impact of current utility disconnection policies has a discriminatory impact on several groups including:

  • Low income people
  • People of color
  • Elderly people
  • People with special health needs
  • Socially vulnerable customers

“This new report reiterates what low-income communities have known for years — living in poverty is more expensive,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem-based environmental group. “Poor access to energy efficiency and lower incomes means it is harder to pay your bills.”

Corbin-Mark’s statement helps to highlight several of the NAACP report’s details including the fact that it is more than twice as likely for African Americans to live in poverty compared to non-African Americans. In addition, in general, low income households are required to pay just as much for heat and energy as high income households. However, for low income households, around 13% of their money goes towards energy purchases compared to only the 5% that higher income households spend. As a result, low income African Americans see the greatest impact when utilities or energy companies raise their rates.

Dangers of Disconnected Electricity

The report also notes that this particular group of energy consumers (low income African American households) are the most likely to go without electricity in order to afford other basic necessities. These necessities include health care and food. As a result, “High energy pries can represent a significant health hazard.”

The results of a 2011 survey revealed some insight into low income households.  It’s claimed that due to high energy bills:

  • Someone within the household was sick because of the cold = 19%
  • A person within the household went without food for a minimum of 1 day = 24%
  • Someone within the home did not refill a prescription (or take a full dosage) = 34%
  • A person within the home did not receive medial or dental care = 24%

Not only do low income households go without other basic necessities to pay their energy bills, they also resort to different methods of obtaining electricity. This is very dangerous to the well-being of every individual living within the household. The NAACP report offers this quote from David Fox of the National Low-Income Energy Consortium (NLIEC), “Regardless of whether it’s shut off or simply that bills are so high that people voluntarily limit usage, several things happen. People use space heaters, kerosene heaters, that increase risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning. And people limit use of electricity. They light the home with candles, which are often too close to something combustible.”

The report also states, “According to the National Fire Protection Association, while only 32 percent of home heating fires involve space heaters, heaters are involved in 79 percent of home heating fire deaths.”

Making Electricity a Basic Human Right

To change these policies for the better, NAACP suggests 5 principals that will help utilities to make electricity available to everyone. These policies include,

  • INCLUSION: “Ensure INCLUSION of all customers in the development of utility policies and regulations.”
  • ACCESS: “Secure ACCESS to utility services for all households.”
  • PROTECTION: “Guarantee the PROTECTION of the human and civil rights of all customers.”
  • TRANSPARENCY: “Create full TRANSPARENCY of the information and actions of utility companies, regulating bodies, legislatures, and utility affiliated organizations.”
  • ELIMINATE POVERTY: “Advance programs that help ELIMINATE POVERTY, so that all customers can pay utility bills.”

NAAPC’s Vision

The organization firmly believes that if every state implemented policies that prevented instead of implemented disconnections, society as a whole would greatly improve.

These new policies would include:

  • If the weather is extremely hot or cold, the power will not shut off.
  • Access to programs that help customers pay for their electricity
  • Better energy efficient upgrade programs
  • Consumers who require life-saving medical technologies gain are protected from losing their power
  • Whether or not you believe that electricity should be a basic human right, it is clear that more discussion and attention is required to current utility policies.

The NAAPC would like to see a complete overhaul off the way the United States currently offers electricity to consumers. They believe that if every state steps up to take measures to offer their residents better access to affordable electricity, it will, “transform social and structural inequities that render households vulnerable.”