Lawmakers ask why utilities left poor Americans powerless in the pandemic

Top members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded answers this week about how Duke, Dominion, and four others shut off families’ electricity, increasing their risks during Covid-19. They cited reporting by BailoutWatch and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Powerless in the pandemic: After bailouts, electric utilities chose profits over people

Lawmakers called out executives from some of the nation’s biggest electric companies this week, questioning why they had shut off power to tens of thousands of households during the Covid-19 pandemic after promising Congress those families would be protected.

“Despite broad assurances from the electric utility industry in early 2020, we have seen alarming reports of high customer shutoff rates during the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic for certain utilities, including yours,” top members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee wrote in letters this week to executives of six electric utilities.

Citing Powerless in the Pandemic, a September report from BailoutWatch and the Center for Biological Diversity, the lawmakers asked why American families had their power cut nearly a million times by 16 electric utilities that also benefited from $1.25 billion in bailout money from various pandemic relief programs. 

Graphic outlining the amount of bailout money utilities received vs how many American households had their power cut off, and how much it would've cost utilities to keep the power on for them.

“We are disturbed by the alarming reports of shutoffs over the last two years,” the lawmakers wrote. “As state shutoff moratoriums expire, we are concerned about the financial pressure on customers.”

The letters were released ahead of an update to BailoutWatch and CBD’s collaboration that finds the September report vastly understated the scale of the problem.

The letters were signed by Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, Energy Subcommittee Chair Bobby Rush of Illinois, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette of Colorado. They were addressed to Dominion Energy Chair, President, and CEO Robert M. Blue; DTE Energy President & CEO Jerry Norcia; Duke Energy Chair, President, and CEO Lynn J. Good; Exelon Corp. President and CEO Chris M. Crane; NextEra Energy President and CEO John W. Ketchum; and Southern Company Chairman and CEO Tom Fanning.

The lawmakers demanded disclosure of additional data about shutoffs beyond what is currently visible to the public or oversight bodies. Powerless in the Pandemic noted that a lack of transparent data makes it impossible to assess the true scope of the problem.

BailoutWatch and Center for Biological Diversity logos