After heat waves, utilities are firing more people due to non-payment

While it would be difficult for anyone to avoid any negative effects of our changing climate, the effects would be felt disproportionately by those least able to bear them. This week provides further evidence that we have already reached the point where the poor are experiencing increased heat waves that have coincided with ever-rising global temperatures.

The work comes from UCLA, where three researchers were given access to data from the Southern California Edison utility, which serves more than 15 million customers in Southern California (you guessed it). The data indicated that lower-income customers were more likely to disconnect utilities after two months of hot weather — a timing that is in line with the utility’s policy of giving customers time to pay. While the effect was small, it rose with each hot day, which means the extended heat waves will cause more serious problems for the poor.

loss of strength

In their new paper, the researchers focused on participants in a program called California Alternative Energy Rates, which lowers the rate low-income customers pay for electricity. Keeping the lights on can be a struggle for these clients; Previous studies have documented that many end up choosing between energy and food, and national surveys indicate that more than 10 percent of American families get a notice of separation each year.

As is generally the case, Southern California Edison customers are not fired the moment they fail to pay a bill. Instead, the company has a policy that closures do not occur until at least 53 days have passed since the end of the unpaid billing period.

The researchers conducted an experiment that validated the idea that higher energy costs increase the number of disconnections. The California Alternative Energy Rates Program requires that participants reconfirm their eligibility for the program every two years. For a variety of reasons, a significant number of clients (over 13 percent) failed rehab, resulting in their rates rising by 30 percent in subsequent billing periods.

The average increase in households affected by this is only $16.64. However, those customers saw their outage rate per 100,000 customers rise from 246 to 318. This is an increase of 72, or nearly 30 percent from the original rate. So, although the change in costs is small in absolute terms, the effect appears to be more felt among people who struggle to manage expenses and may already be behind on their payments.

It gets worse

For their analysis of heat waves, the researchers focused on days when the maximum temperature rose above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), well above the average daily maximum of 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit). Those temperatures will likely boost the use of air conditioners, and the testing period is over before California rolls out any pricing programs that encourage electricity use during the midday peak of solar production.

Overall, they found that each additional day with temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius boosted electricity use by just over a percentage point, with bills rising about 1.6 percent. For temperatures up to 38°C, the added cost was about 3 percent.

There was no immediate effect on the disconnection. But, if you include a 50-day delay to adjust to the utility’s policy of delayed disconnection, then each day above 35°C is associated with an increase in the disconnection rate by three households per 100,000 customers—a change of about 1.2 percent. Again, the daily rate is very small, but heat waves usually include several days of abnormally high temperatures, with maximum temperatures often well above 35°C.

The researchers also note that it’s not just the cost of electricity that can fuel additional blackouts. Higher temperatures can increase health risks and can interfere with some jobs, increasing other costs and potentially lowering incomes. Under these circumstances, utility payments may end up being an item to be sacrificed even if there are more significant changes elsewhere in the budget.

In what they refer to as the “envelope back” calculation, the team also used climate models and a high-emissions scenario to estimate what would happen if the facility’s clients were faced with the type of climate that could occur by the end of the century. It is estimated that things will be about 10 times worse, with outages rising more than 10 percent. It is clear that energy economy at the turn of the century will look a little like today, so it is not clear how appropriate this estimate is (which the authors point out).

While the effects here are minor, the heat waves get longer and more intense. In September of this year, California saw temperatures in many areas rise above 40 degrees Celsius, and the high temperatures lasted for about 10 days. It would be useful to revisit this analysis with data that overlaps with this event.

nature energy2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41560-022-01134-2 (about DOIs).

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