Is it time for Pa. to ban summer utility shutoffs?

PECO truck in the foreground, PECO worker in the background

PECO truck in the foreground, PECO worker in the background (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It was summer, several years ago, when Villena Brown’s electricity was shut off. Her West Philadelphia row home got “very, very hot.”

“You have to see you and your kids hot,” she said. “And there was nothing you could do. I had no electric, no lights, no air.”

Brown is a single mother of two living near the Haddington neighborhood of West Philadelphia. She lives on a fixed income because she goes to dialysis three days a week. She has diabetes, which can make people more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Back in 2016, when her electricity was disconnected, Brown said she was not enrolled in any utility assistance programs. She balanced her monthly electricity bill with other costs, like heating oil, but eventually racked up a debt of around $1,500.

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“Some months I got oil, some months I put some on the electric bill,” she said. “But it caught up with me.”

Villena Brown at her home in West Philly.
Villena Brown at her home in West Philly. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

Sitting on the front steps of her row home during last month’s heat wave, Brown remembered the shutoff as a “very emotional” time. Her kids were young teenagers then.

“Being a mother, you try to do everything you can for your kids. But sometimes — we’re not Superman,” she said. “You can’t just snap your fingers and you got a wad of cash. That was hard.”

Thousands of PECO customers like Brown lose access to air conditioning and fans each summer, when their electricity is shut off for nonpayment. Some advocates and experts say states like Pennsylvania should ban shutoffs for low-income utility customers during the summer, as climate change fuels more dangerous heat waves.

Thousands of shutoffs each summer

This summer, approximately 9,000 PECO customers had their service disconnected for non-payment between June 1 and July 20, according to PECO.

With the exception of 2020, when shutoffs were paused because of the pandemic, roughly 33,000 to 40,000 PECO accounts were disconnected for nonpayment between June and August each summer since 2017.

These numbers represent premises where service was disconnected, and do not directly correlate to customers, according to PECO officials. The utility provides electricity to over 1.6 million customers in Philadelphia and four surrounding counties.

PECO and other electric and natural gas utilities regulated by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission are barred from shutting off low-income customers’ service between Dec. 1 and March 31 if customers can’t pay their bills. In addition to winter moratoriums, several states surrounding Pennsylvania — New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware — also have temperature-based shutoff restrictions that kick in during extreme heat.

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But there are no statewide protections against disconnections during summer months or extreme heat in Pennsylvania.

At least one Pennsylvania lawmaker plans to change this.

Democratic State Rep. Chris Rabb, of Philadelphia, has not introduced such legislation yet, but said in an interview Monday that legislation to extend the winter shutoff moratorium to other “seasons where there is extreme weather,” including summer, is “forthcoming.”

“If we’re only dealing with this during the winter months, we’re forgetting a whole season,” Rabb said. “There have been many, many days that are 90-plus [degrees]. And it’s the new norm. The problem is the folks who are in the most vulnerable positions have the fewest options to stay cool. And that has serious, serious public health consequences.”

The end of the winter shutoff moratorium can put families in a hard place, said Diana Hernández, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“It’s complete exposure,” she said. “You go from having layers of supports and protections with shutoff protections in the heating season and also with LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) funds available for bill assistance. And then once the spring comes, that transition, and people that had cover all of a sudden don’t.”

This year, due to extra federal funding, Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services did run the LIHEAP season into June and issued larger supplemental assistance payments than usual to households that received LIHEAP assistance in the last year, according to officials. These payments can help offset summer utility bills.

PECO does voluntarily pause new shutoffs during heat health emergencies declared by the City of Philadelphia, but if your electricity is shut off when the emergency begins, it doesn’t automatically get restored. 

PECO customers can also avoid shutoffs by submitting medical certificates, signed by a medical professional, indicating a shutoff would harm an ill household member. But these must be renewed every 30 days, and will only prevent a shutoff for a limited time, if a customer can’t pay their current charges.

Tom Brubaker, a spokesperson for PECO, called disconnections a “last resort” in a multi-step notification process that complies with all regulations.

“We do not want to disconnect service to any of our customers,” he said in an email. “We continuously work to enroll as many eligible customers as possible in our bill relief and customer assistance programs.”

Philly’s dangerous and inequitable heat

Those struggling to pay their utility bills often face a dangerous combination of poor access to cooling and more exposure to extreme heat.

Brown, the mother of two who lives in West Philly, survived part of this summer with no air conditioning after her second-hand A/C unit broke. The home she rents is old, she said, and gets very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Late last month, Brown received a new window unit from a small mutual aid group.

“I was so overwhelmed and happy and screaming and crying,” she said.

In a city where the difference in summer temperatures between neighborhoods can be up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit, Brown’s neighborhood in West Philly is one of the city’s hottest and most vulnerable to heat, based on demographic, socioeconomic, and health factors. Like other hot neighborhoods, it was formerly redlined.

“Philadelphia is a really good example of a place where we see extreme inequities with regard to the intensity of heat exposure that people are going to be experiencing during these extreme heat events,” said Leah Schinasi, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University who has studied the reasons behind this inequity in Philly.

Schinasi’s team found that higher proportions of homes in disinvested neighborhoods had low tree cover and dark, flat roofs, compared to other neighborhoods. “They [also] have less access to air conditioning,” she said. “Even if they have air conditioning, they may not be able to afford to use those air conditioning systems because of the tremendous energy burden that the use of air conditioning represents.”

National surveys have shown that a higher percentage of Hispanic or Latino and non-Hispanic Black households receive disconnect notices than non-Hispanic white households.

In Philly, attorneys at Community Legal Services see a “steady stream” of clients each summer who have either received a shutoff notice or have already had their electricity shut off, said Joline Price, an attorney at CLS who helps these customers restore and maintain utility service. They are disproportionately low-income, living on fixed incomes, elderly, or disabled, she said. Many are Black, brown or part of limited English-speaking households.

The stakes of exposure to extreme heat are high. The city recorded seven heat-related deaths so far this summer, though it’s not clear whether these individuals had access to air conditioning.

Should Pa. restrict summer shutoffs?

Villena Brown has lived in Philly all her life. She’s noticed the city getting hotter.

“This summer has been so much [more] humid and hot than last summer, and last summer we had about seven heat waves,” she said.

Climate change, caused by humans burning fossil fuels, is making extreme heat worse. Philly’s average summer temperature has gone up about 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. The city now experiences on average a dozen more days above 90 degrees each year than it did in 1970.

“Especially as climate change impacts our state and particularly impacts Philadelphia, we need to be thinking about protections against electric shutoffs in the summer months, when … people are going to be facing high heat,” said Price, with Community Legal Services.

Several energy justice experts and advocates told PlanPhilly they think more states should implement restrictions on utility shutoffs to protect families from summer heat, whether temperature- or date-based.

“From an equity perspective, people should have the option to be able to cool, to cool affordably, to have access to energy in their home that isn’t threatened because of inability to pay,” said Hernández, the professor at Columbia.

Asked whether the utility would support a summer shutoff moratorium, PECO spokesperson Tom Brubaker said that in general, “PECO is supportive of programs that assist customers in managing their utility bills, and we fully comply with regulations as set forth by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.”

But Public Utility Commission officials say utilities already have flexibility in how they deal with customers, and that any new requirements are the domain of the General Assembly.

“State regulations related to utility terminations are drawn directly from legislation, so policy questions about potential changes to moratoriums are best addressed by lawmakers,” said PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen in an email.

Brown, of West Philly, wants to see restrictions on utility disconnections in the summer — to protect other single parents with limited income, like her.

“Sometimes you just plum can’t afford it,” she said. “Then you stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do I pay my utilities? Do I put food on the table? Do I pay my rent? You really, basically, struggling.”

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