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Millions At Risk As States Begin To Lift Power Shut-Off Bans

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The death toll from February's brutal winter storm in Texas was revised to 111 this week. That's double the original estimates. The storm cut power to much of the state and left millions in uninsulated homes. Now millions of people throughout the country are at risk of losing power not because of bad weather, but unpaid electric bills. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: So much of everyday life depends on electricity, it can be hard to imagine what it's like to go without. Michael Driskill doesn't have to imagine. He lived without electricity for much of last year after the power company cut him off. It wasn't easy.

MICHAEL DRISKILL: You can't take a shower. You can't cool food. You can't do laundry. You can't set an alarm clock. You can't charge your cell phone. Without electricity, it's almost impossible to live in today's society.

HORSLEY: Driskill, who lives in a trailer home in Osceola, Iowa, owed the power company $2,000. After he lost his job at a meatpacking plant during the pandemic, there was little chance of catching up. He tried running a generator for a while, but it failed, costing him a refrigerator full of food. He ran an extension cord to his neighbor's house in exchange for a few bucks, but it was only enough to power a few lights.

DRISKILL: When I tried to run a microwave off of it, it was too much. So I went over to Mom's house and did laundry and all that. Taking a shower with cold water is pretty bad.

HORSLEY: Ordinarily, just the threat of a power shut-off will force many customers to pay their overdue bill. Electric companies are also willing to work out a payment plan. But last year, as millions of people lost jobs, unpaid bills more than doubled to an estimated $27 billion. At the same time, many states imposed additional restrictions on power shut-offs during the pandemic. Mark Wolfe, who runs an association of state energy assistance officials, says that helped to keep the lights on, but the meter kept running. And the bills kept piling up.

MARK WOLFE: All we've done is kick the can down the road. So instead of owing a few hundred dollars, you now might $2,000. So you can see that the amount of debt a family is in now is much deeper than before.

HORSLEY: This month, more than a dozen states are lifting restrictions on power shut-offs, meaning a lot more people will soon be in danger of having their electricity cut.

OWEN QUINLAN: It is a fiasco waiting to happen.

HORSLEY: Owen Quinlan is a data scientist with Arcadia, a renewable power marketing firm. He's been tracking the rise in unpaid bills and says the pandemic has been a double-whammy, cutting many people's income just as they're having to use more power while stuck at home.

QUINLAN: I have my HVAC running at 70 degrees all day, every day. My lights are on and everything at my house.

HORSLEY: As with so many pandemic hardships, African Americans and Latinos appear to be particularly hard hit. Tufts University economist Steve Cicala has been studying shutoffs in Illinois and found residents in minority neighborhoods there are four times more likely to have their power cut, likely as a result of higher economic stress, especially during the pandemic.

STEVE CICALA: The COVID shock is a particularly unequal one, which makes it really important to be able to target that aid to the people who are suffering.

HORSLEY: Congress did authorize an extra $4 1/2 billion in energy assistance as part of the relief package passed earlier this month. But Wolfe says it's going to take time to distribute that money. He worries some customers will have their power cut before the aid can reach them.

WOLFE: What we're asking is for utilities to wait. We understand that they have customers who haven't paid the bills for a year, but funding is becoming available. And so rather than have a family shut off from power and go through the misery of that, why not just wait?

HORSLEY: Charity McCombs went without power for more than a month last fall because of an unpaid bill. She stored food in camp coolers and used her car's battery to power a few lights. McCombs, who lives in Lovilia, Iowa, remembers how relieved she was when an energy assistance program paid off her bill and she was finally able to have hot water again.

CHARITY MCCOMBS: It was awesome (laughter). I was actually surprised that they paid the full balance and get that turned back on. I was very thankful.

HORSLEY: McCombs shares a lesson many Americans are learning this pandemic year. When you get behind on your electric bill, it's hard to catch up.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.