By Kayli Ottomanelli, Clean Virginia Advocacy Fellow and Fredericksburg resident
Virginians across the Commonwealth have experienced a rough winter this year. Icy precipitation has suspended school schedules, shuttered businesses, and stranded hundreds of commuters on roadways. In some areas of the state, heavy snowfall has also been accompanied by widespread power failures and water shutoffs. Nearly 200,000 residents throughout Central and Northeast Virginia lost power for days after a strong winter storm swept across the state last month. Many families had to bundle up to keep warm in their 30-degree living rooms and had to bury their perishables out in the snow.
These hardships offer a glimpse into what many low-income households in Virginia could endure during the winter months if their utilities are disconnected for non-payment. Virginia currently has among the weakest utility disconnection protections for customers of any state in the south. Most states have seasonal protections for utility consumers that prohibit disconnections when temperatures are below 32℉ or above 95℉, but Virginia lacks these protections.
Disconnection policies in Virginia vary by utility, subjecting residents to disparate disconnection regulations based on their provider. Of the 41 electric and gas utilities in the state, only Dominion Energy is prohibited from disconnecting consumers due to unpaid bills due to an executive order to halt disconnections during the pandemic, and they will only be mandated to do so until March 2022. Virginia also has no limitations on disconnections during certain months of the year or within specified temperature ranges. However, when temperatures drop dangerously low or climb precipitously, service disruptions that expose households to extreme weather can quickly become a matter of life or death.
To bridge this critical gap in consumer protections, Delegate Irene Shin has introduced a bill (House Bill 1054) that would protect families by prohibiting public water, gas, and electric utilities from disconnecting essential services during extreme weather events or periods of crisis. Not only does this bill protect vulnerable Virginians from dangerous utility disconnections during times of extreme weather, it also expedites service restoration by allowing utilities to incorporate disconnection and reconnection fees into a payment plan, thereby severing the link between reconnection and fees.
Families should not have to face a potentially fatal situation when they fall behind on their utility bills, but the unfortunate reality is that thousands lose their lives every year from exposure to extreme temperatures. Civil rights organizations uphold that all individuals have the right to affordable energy and uninterrupted essential services. Implementing fair utility disconnection and repayment measures that allow families to heat and cool their homes in the most severe months of the year, such as HB 1054, will literally save lives.
This bill comes up for a vote in the House soon – act now to tell legislators to protect our most vulnerable individuals by setting fair disconnection rules for electricity, water, and gas utilities in Virginia.