As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, we’re learning that historically inflexible systems can suddenly become flexible. Systems can change, when there is the will to do so. From energy and water utilities to housing, to small business and worker supports, longstanding rules and regulations have been suspended, relaxed, or completely eliminated in the name of supporting individuals and families during these trying times.
In Fresh Energy’s work, we’ve been encouraged to see states across the country — from Colorado to Connecticut — taking extraordinary action to protect energy and water customers amid COVID-19, prohibiting energy, water, and telecommunications disconnections, ordering service reconnections, and extending the application deadline for assistance programs such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Many of the actions listed above are powerful tools for decision-makers in Minnesota to consider. Although many utilities in Minnesota have already voluntarily taken action, it is important that customers throughout the state are protected from disconnections and that disconnected customers are safely reconnected as soon as possible. Following the disconnection suspension period, customers should have a grace period on balances owed, and all late fees and credit penalties should be waived. Customers should also be offered additional information regarding energy assistance programs (such as LIHEAP) available to them. As Minnesota enters uncharted territory with its own statewide response to COVID-19, we have the chance to root our policy solutions in lessons learned from other states.
After the crisis, people will still struggle to pay
The actions already taken to protect Minnesotans in this unprecedented time are a crucial first step — but we must also acknowledge that for many Minnesotans, these circumstances won’t end with the COVID-19 crisis. Under-resourced customers will still struggle to pay high utility bills. Renters will still face a significant need for safer, healthier, and more affordable housing. Communities of color and under-resourced customers will still face disproportionately higher air pollution and environmental hazards in their communities.
The acute circumstances of this crisis are shedding light on how we must start thinking about our energy system for the long term: that is, having the will to remove systemic barriers to ensure that all Minnesotans truly benefit.
When the COVID-19 crisis ends, will we return to business as usual? Or will we use this time to deeply examine our current practices and challenge ourselves to improve the system in order to improve the lives of all Minnesotans? What steps are we willing to take to ensure that our neighbors have access to safe, reliable energy and water utility service and stable housing without fear of disconnection or eviction at all times, not just in times of crisis? How are we willing to rethink energy efficiency programs and access to renewable energy to reduce energy burden and improve housing stock for those who need it the most? How can we re-imagine our transportation system and built environment to ensure that everyone, regardless of income, race, or physical ability, can travel safely and without suffering from increased air pollution in their communities? What opportunities can we unlock for family-supporting careers in the clean energy sector, for Minnesotans from Fergus Falls to Frogtown?
Ongoing impacts of systemic inequities
The health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are real, and it is critical that we take them seriously. But we must also acknowledge the very real, ongoing impacts of systemic inequities — many of which have been unveiled through this crisis — and the energy system’s role in them.
We at Fresh Energy have been heartened by the actions taken by utilities throughout the state to serve their customers’ needs during this time, the response from our partners in the housing sector to ensure that everyone has stable housing, and priorities raised by decisionmakers statewide to ensure that individuals and families aren’t left behind.
But once the pandemic ends, we must turn this volatility into an inflection point for our expectations of the energy system. The system has proven that it can change — but we must have the will to make our energy and transportation systems more accessible and equitable for all.
Ben Passer is the director of Energy Access and Equity at Fresh Energy, an independent energy policy organization in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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