Consumer advocates still lack access to data that would let them determine the extent of any racial disparities in Ohio utility shutoffs for customers’ failure to pay gas and electric bills.
Information about what share of disconnections affect people of color, low-income families, seniors or other vulnerable groups would be an important step toward making energy more affordable for all Ohioans, advocates say.
“There is a need for ever-increasing assistance with these utility bills,” said David Manor, a lawyer with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Toledo, adding that any utility shutoff “could definitely affect quality of life.”
The calls for better transparency come as the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) considers a request by utilities to reverse a recent order that requires the companies to wait 30 days before disconnecting service for customers who are seeking bill assistance.
A natural gas shutoff can affect people’s ability to heat their homes as nights become cooler, to take warm showers or baths, or to cook food if they have a gas stove, Manor said.
Not having electricity would cast families into darkness as soon as the sun goes down, Manor continued. Perishable foods spoil when refrigerators have no power, causing losses that add to people’s financial woes. Family members can’t do online job searches, homework assignments and other activities requiring a computer. And so on.
Regulated utilities file yearly reports with the PUCO with monthly data on the number of customers disconnected, the number of notices sent out to warn about disconnections, and the amount of late payments customers owe. The reports also show how many customers were reconnected and the total number of customers each month.
Specific information about which addresses’ gas or electricity is shut off is deemed private information. Specifics about customers’ race, age, family income and other matters are likewise kept private.
Zip codes could provide clues
Consumer advocates have asked regulators on several occasions to require utilities to provide at least zip code data for where disconnections take place. Although not precise, the information could let advocates and researchers use other data resources to gauge the extent of racial disparities.
Utilities have zip code information from customers’ billing statements. Researchers could use that information to estimate how many disconnections take place in different census tracts. U.S. Census data for those tracts would then provide information about the percentages of different race and ethnic groups in each area, the average age and income levels within each tract, whether homes are rented or owned, and other facts.
So far, the PUCO has declined multiple times to require utilities to report the data. In at least two cases, the commission even said there was no evidence of racial disparities — even though data would be necessary to show whether the disparities existed or not.
Ohio utility rates and riders are neutral on their face when it comes to customers’ race, age, income levels or other factors. In some instances, however, data on racial disparities can be evidence of unlawful discrimination. Plaintiffs made claims to that effect in a pending case about the city of Cleveland’s disproportionate number of property liens and shutoffs for unpaid water bills in areas with larger percentages of Black customers, for example.
Even if racial disparities don’t show illegal discrimination, they can spotlight ongoing problems linked to systemic racism.
“I think that data is very important,” Manor said, adding that “the effects of redlining are still very real.”
Racial disparities and energy burdens
Systemic disinvestment in those areas has continued even after discrimination became illegal. Older, less energy-efficient housing, fewer educational opportunities, lower overall incomes and other problems have exacerbated many people’s ability to pay energy bills.
Ohio’s poverty rates reflect racial disparities, too. Roughly 23% of Hispanic and Latinx people met the report’s criteria for poverty in 2021 according to the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies’ latest State of Poverty report. For Black Ohioans, the rate was nearly 28% — more than twice the state’s overall average of 13.4%.
Tools such as the Greenlink Equity Map have highlighted some disproportionate impacts, including higher energy burdens for areas in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati with larger percentages of people of color. Higher energy burdens mean that relatively larger shares of household income go toward paying utility bills.
In a similar vein, University of Cincinnati researchers found that being non-White and having low income correlated with higher energy burdens in that city.
Energy costs aren’t the only issue people face, either, said Kim Foreman, chief executive officer for Environmental Health Watch in Cleveland. “People have got to make choices around food, energy and rent,” she said. So all too often, “they have to juggle and balance which bill to pay.”
Black households accounted for roughly one-third of the utility disconnections nationwide in 2021, according to a Congressional Research Service report released in January of this year. Black people represented less than one-sixth of the total number of householders overall.
Andrew Tinkham, a utility program specialist with the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, repeated a request for detailed disconnection data by zip codes when he testified in June in an ongoing AEP Ohio case to raise customer charges.
Tinkham also asked for PUCO action that would lead to fewer disconnections in zip codes with high rates of disconnections and developing bill payment assistance programs targeted to those areas.
Ohio utility shut-offs by the numbers
“AEP Ohio disconnects consumers at a higher rate compared to other electric distribution utilities in Ohio,” Tinkham added.
Ohio’s regulated electric utilities reported nearly 281,000 disconnections from June 2022 through May 2023. Collectively, that’s roughly 6% of their total customers as of May.
However, the total number and rate of disconnections by AEP Ohio was more than twice that for Duke, AES Ohio or FirstEnergy’s three utilities, even when adjusted for lower numbers of customers.
Ohio does have some programs that can provide relief from high energy burdens when customers are struggling to pay, including summer and winter crisis programs, as well as a Home Energy Assistance Program or its Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus program, known as PIPP. And the PUCO provided some temporary relief with a July order telling gas and electric utilities to hold off on disconnections for 30 days when consumers have applied for help under various assistance programs.
“Typically it does take more than 30 days to process an application for assistance, but I’m hoping the order issued by the commission will at least alleviate some of these problems,” said Michael Walters, a lawyer with Pro Seniors, Inc. That group joined with Advocates for Basic Legal Equity, the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the Ohio Poverty Law Center and the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio to ask for the delay and other relief in a June filing.
The PUCO is currently reconsidering the 30-day relief order, after claims by Duke Energy Ohio, and Columbia Gas and Dominion Energy Ohio that it was unreasonable and unlawful. Ohio’s four largest regulated gas utilities reported more than 74,000 disconnections from June 2022 through May 2023.
Whether or when regulators will order utilities to provide data to identify racial disparities in disconnections remains unclear. Yet a lack of information can hinder actions to address racial inequities.
“Especially when you’re talking about equity and the law … you have to know before you can do anything else,” Manor said.