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Keeping the Power on in Extreme Heat

Written by Mariel Thuraisingham, Clean Energy Policy Lead, and
Guillermo Rogel Jr., Legislative and Goverment Relations Advocate

July was the hottest month in humanity’s history. The U.S. broke more than 2,000 high temperature records in the past month. Although Washington State hasn’t experienced the extreme heat devastating other parts of the country this summer, anyone who lived through the heat dome that struck the Pacific Northwest in 2021 clearly remembers how bad it can get. Heat waves are one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in the U.S.

Local communities and governments are trying different strategies to cope with this worrying trend, including the Washington State Legislature. It’s going to take much more action and accountability to develop policies and programs that truly grapple with the crisis at hand, but here’s one step forward the Legislature took last session and how our coalition was involved.

Prior to each session we work with our coalition of community of color organizations across the state to create policy priorities, as we did with our 2023 Just Transition Agenda, that truly represent and are accountable to our communities’ needs and solutions. (For more about how we do policy and the outcomes of this session, check out this previous blog entry.)

Proposals originating from our frontline coalition are the primary focus of our work. However, we’re also frequently asked to support or champion policies developed by other organizations, lawmakers, or leaders. One such case was House Bill 1329, which requires that electric and water utilities maintain services for all residential customers during excessive heat.

Too many families falling behind on their bills are not reached by assistance and are facing utility disconnection. So the law’s approach aligns with our strategy to increase energy access and affordability and crack down on disconnections, not just during extreme heat or cold, but year round. It represents a small but important step in our much wider vision of Energy Justice, part of a Just Transition to a regenerative energy system through equitable rates and effective limits on utility control of our right to affordable, renewable energy.

We needed to see whether this particular bill was a step toward our energy justice vision or something that could be a stumbling block. It’s the difference between compromise that moves us toward our goals and compromise that sells community short while limiting future progress.

We found a way to get the bill over the finish line: our coalition, allies, Representative Sharlett Mena (29th LD), utilities, Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, who requested the bill, and other interested parties. Hopefully, folks who are struggling to pay their energy bills will feel the difference when the temperature rises.

Analyzing the Bill

The new law protects access to power and water for families who are facing shutoffs for falling behind on their utility bill payments, and it requires that reconnection services be available for households who have already been disconnected during extreme heat. With the existing winter moratorium, this sets a higher standard of protection for utility customers across Washington, securing continuity of services over the coldest and hottest days of the year.

This policy will save the lives of people most vulnerable to health impacts from loss of power or water in extreme heat. The law also requires disconnection data reporting, where currently only the five investor-owned utilities in Washington are required—by a temporary rule—to publicly disclose how many households have been shut off. This policy makes utility systems better. It improves transparency of information about disconnection risk, allowing for more collective work on statewide solutions. It also strengthens the foundation of protections to access critical services which utilities and policymakers can continue to improve upon so that families stay connected to the services they need to survive and thrive.

However, this policy clearly doesn’t represent our full vision nor completely eliminates disconnections that disproportionately burden low-income households and families of color. The bill could have gone much further to reduce harm and support healthy homes in times of extreme heat. The moratorium kicks in with a high heat alert from the National Weather Service for the concerned area. It is not as straightforward and easy to track as a temperature threshold (for example, at or above 85°F) or seasonal range (for example, May 15 –  Sept. 15), leaving substantial room for interpretation differences, particularly around the term “local area.” A learning curve and guidance from the WA Department of Commerce will be needed to provide utilities, regulatory agents, and customers with a clear understanding of when, where, and how heat alerts are determined and the protection is in place. For customers in particular, this is the information they need to advocate for their rights.

While people whose services have been disconnected now have a right to be reconnected, they must proactively request it, and we know that many customers at highest risk for disconnection are in that condition because they experience challenges in communicating with utilities. Since the law offers no remedy to address these communication issues, it is unlikely anyone will experience the benefit of reconnection without external support.

The law requires that large utilities report disconnection data to improve information about shutoff risk, but there is no provision for analysis and targeted programming or other interventions from what is learned about disconnections during high heat events. The Department of Commerce will need to expand its power for data collection and work with utilities and other agencies to effectively reduce barriers to life-saving protections.

“Late morning. Guillermo Rogel is on the calendar.”

It’s not often the community gets to see behind the curtain about how legislation is made. Even more rare, is when our day-to-day work lobbying lawmakers winds up on the radio. In an extensive and instructive two-part series, KNKX (NPR) reporter Scott Greenstone tracked the work of first-term representative Sharlett Mena, who had a very active inaugural session. In that story, our legislative advocate Guillermo Rogel Jr. is heard having a frank discussion with Rep. Mena about how the bill is changing as it goes through the process:

Rogel: “I’ll check in with the community and let you know kind of where they land. Because I know that a lot of folks are reaching out to us on the bill and looking for us for guidance and like, we’re not trying to sink it either.

Mena: “Well, that’s— I mean, that is the question, right? Like these conversations are the most painful for me because we’re on the same team and I fully understand that the bill doesn’t go far enough, but it’s something.

Greenstone: Rogel’s organization—Front and Centered—that’s a group Mena really doesn’t want as an enemy.

We will never sacrifice our principles in the interest of passing an unworthy or incomplete bill. At the same time, when policy can improve health outcomes and help families keep their electricity on, we can step up to support it. Plus, we can monitor implementation of this policy and return in the future to make improvements. We intend to continue our advocacy in this area with frontline communities most at risk to ensure that, while compromise is a necessary art at some stages, the work continues to genuinely achieve Energy for All.