For two years, Amy Mays lived without electricity, storing food in an ice chest during Arizona’s scorching hot summers.
When Mays opened a beauty shop with her daughter in 1994, she didn’t expect it would become the setting for an ongoing fight with her local power utility. While she managed to keep up to date on her monthly bills, she struggled with unexpected charges from the utility. After a decade in business, Mays watched the lights go out in her beauty shop — and then her home.
Stories like hers illustrate a simple fact, that power is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. It is fundamental to our health, safety and prosperity. It’s why numerous experts and advocates have argued that access to electricity should be a human right, including, most recently, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.
Mays’ story appears in a new report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which calls for “the establishment of a universal right to uninterrupted energy service.” The report lays out policies and practices to ensure disadvantaged people have access to electricty.
“This new report reiterates what low-income communities have known for years — living in poverty is more expensive,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem-based environmental group. “Poor access to energy efficiency and lower incomes means it is harder to pay your bills.”
Poor families dedicate a larger share of their income to their power bill, leaving less to spend on essentials, like food or medical care. And, as Corbin-Mark noted, “it can be life-threatening when shutoffs occur.”
The NAACP report cites several shocking examples of what can happen when the lights go out:
- A Maryland man resorted to using an electric generator to power his home after losing service from the grid. Carbon monoxide from the generator killed him and his seven children in their sleep.
- A mother in New York used a candle to light her home after the utility disconnected her power. Authorities say the candle likely started the fire that killed three of her children.
- A Michigan man died of hypothermia after a power shutoff left him without heat. He had failed to settle his power bill. Authorities later found the bill in his kitchen alongside a large sum of money, suggesting the man intended to pay the utility.
This, too, is a matter of social justice. “Dangerous and unnecessary shut offs in the sweltering heat and frigid cold disproportionately impact low-income [families], the elderly and communities of color,” said NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks.
According to data from the Energy Information Administration, among households at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, those headed by African-Americans were more than twice as likely to endure power shutoffs as those headed by white Americans. The report said this disparity could be the result of institutional racism or differences in wealth, among other factors.
Currently, the United States does not regard access to electricity as a human right, though many experts believe it should.
Kate Donald from the Center for Economic and Social Rights said that access to reliable power is essential for the provision of health, food and housing — all recognized as human rights. She said the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women are often interpreted as providing a right to electricity — at least in other countries.
“Of course, none of this is helpful because the U.S. hasn’t ratified either of those conventions,” Donald said.
The NAACP report asserts that humans have a right to safe, affordable, sustainable power. Public utilities — regulated monopolies — are charged with serving the public interest, and the report argues they should ensure access to electricity for all people.
“Legislatures and regulators exercise broad power over public utilities, but the role of regulators is limited by the legislature’s definition of the public interest,” the authors write. The report advocates for state legislators to amend the legal definition of “public interest” to treat electricity as a human right and account for issues like poverty, racial discrimination and climate change.
“Extreme heat and cold with climate change will only make inequality and injustice worse,” said Corbin-Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “In New York State, we have some of the highest electricity costs in the nation, and we need more low-income customers and communities of color represented on the Public Service Commission and involved in energy policy decision-making and regulation.”
The NAACP calls on every state to implement policies to prevent disconnections, including:
- An end to power shutoffs when the weather is dangerously cold or hot.
- Protections for elderly and disabled customers who need electricity to run life-saving medical devices.
- Programs to assist with energy efficiency upgrades.
- Programs to help struggling customers pay their bills.
Notably, the report also calls for more clean power and distributed generation. Rooftop solar offers one tool for protecting the right to electricity. To that end, some organizations, like renewable-energy nonprofit GRID Alternatives, are providing free rooftop solar installations to low-income families.
“Reducing the energy burden of disadvantaged communities through the installation of solar creates a long-term, sustainable solution to reduce shut-offs,” said Nicole Steele, Executive Director of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic. “Everyone deserves access to the benefits and independence that rooftop solar can provide.”
Amy Mays, the woman described at the beginning of this article, found stability in solar. After she was disconnected from the grid, she started reading up on rooftop solar. She bought panels one or two at a time, as she could afford them. Eventually, she had purchased enough to provide a generous supply of power to her home.
Mays remains off-grid. She hasn’t paid a power bill since 2004.
“I will never go back to the utility connection,” she wrote in the report. “With life-threatening, high-heat temperatures in Arizona, solar has literally saved my life!”