During 2020, several of the nation’s top utilities shut off families’ electric service nearly 1 million times while simultaneously receiving a collective $1.25 billion in government bailouts.
The Center for Biological Diversity and BailoutWatch published a report documenting the utility companies’ use of CARES Act funds to secure beneficial tax-code changes despite not offering temporary relief to customers
Between February 2020 and June 2021, approximately 1 million households had their service suspended or canceled by one of 16 utility companies. Customers were subsequently left without hot water, refrigeration, air conditioning and medical devices.
The Powerless in the Pandemic report argues that many of the companies could have bailed out their customers more than 500 times based on the amount they spent on executive pay and dividends.
Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program, said state regulators who do not make shut off data public are complicit.
“It’s appalling that utility companies cut power to countless families throughout the pandemic while raking in taxpayer bailout money,” she said in a statement. “This greedy, heartless practice hurts low-wealth communities and communities of color most of all. It needs to stop. Complicit state regulators who fail to make shutoff data public should stop cowering and start shedding light on utilities’ bad behavior.”
A total of nine companies received tax bailouts totaling $1.25 billion during the study’s timeframe. According to the researchers, about 8.5% of the bailout total would have prevented all the reported shut-offs.
The report also found that 94% of shut offs were conducted by NextEra Energy (parent of Florida Power & Light and others), Duke Energy, Southern Company, Dominion Energy, Exelon, and DTE Energy.
NextEra Energy accounted for about half of shut-offs. At the same time, the company received $41 million in Cares benefits and spent $5.6m lobbying against consumer protections and other legislation, reports The Guardian.
About $845 million — 75% of the total bailout — went to Duke Energy and DTE Energy.
Between the two companies, power was cut at least 203,000 times. They could have forgiven their customers’ unpaid bills more than 150 times, according to the report.
“From the data we analyzed, it is clear that private utilities prioritize profits and shareholder satisfaction over all else, including customer health and the climate,” said Chris Kuveke, a data analyst with BailoutWatch. “These companies took bailout dollars from taxpayers and turned around to lobby against shutoff moratoria proven to save lives. Investor-owned utilities’ incentives are misaligned if they’re not providing people with the basic need of electricity during a crisis. They need stricter regulation.”
Shut-off data is only available for the 16 companies reviewed in the report. Accordingly, that information reflects only the experiences of a limited number of customers.
“There is no industry standard or federal mandate to compel private utilities to disclose information about disconnections, and most state utility commissions choose not to collect the data or make it available,” the Center for Biological Diversity and BailoutWatch said in their statement.