Millions of people are at risk of losing electricity in the coming weeks because of unpaid power bills, even as Congress has authorized billions of dollars in supplemental relief.
Overdue power bills have mushroomed during the pandemic as job losses mounted and residential power consumption soared.
Many states restrict power shutoffs during the winter. But with those safeguards expiring in more than a dozen states this month, the threat of widespread power interruption is growing.
"It's a fiasco waiting to happen," said Owen Quinlan, vice president of data science and analytics at Arcadia, a renewable power marketing firm. He's been monitoring the rise in unpaid bills, which put millions of people in danger of having their power turned off.
Anyone who's ever lost power because of a thunderstorm or downed tree limb knows the hardship of being without electricity for even a few hours.
Michael Driskill in Osceola, Iowa, went without power for months.
"Without electricity, it's almost impossible to live in today's society," Driskill said. "You can't cool food. You can't do laundry. You can't set an alarm clock. You can't charge your cellphone."
Power to Driskill's trailer home was turned off last year over an unpaid bill for $2,000. After he lost his job at a meatpacking plant, Driskill had little chance of catching up.
"I went over to Mom's house and did laundry and all that," he said. "But taking a shower with cold water is pretty bad."
Ordinarily, just the threat of a power shutoff will force many customers to pay overdue bills. Electric companies are also willing to work out payment plans and tend to use power shutoffs as last resorts.
And with millions of people having lost jobs during the pandemic, unpaid bills more than doubled — to an estimated $27 billion, according to Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
Many states placed additional limits on power shutoffs during the pandemic. While that kept the lights on, the meters kept running, and the bills kept piling up.
"All we've done is kick the can down the road," Wolfe said. "So instead of owing a few hundred dollars, you now might owe $2,000. You can see that the amount of debt the family is in now is much deeper than before."
For many residential power customers, the pandemic has been a double whammy — cutting their income just as they're having to use more electricity while stuck at home.
"I have my HVAC running at 70 degrees, all day, every day," Quinlan said. "My lights are on and everything in my house."
As with so many pandemic hardships, African Americans and Latinos appear to be particularly hard hit. A study of power shutoffs in Illinois found residents in minority neighborhoods are four times more likely to have their power cut — likely as a result of higher economic stress, especially during the pandemic.
"The COVID shock is a particularly unequal one," said Tufts University economist Steve Cicala, who conducted the study. "Which makes it really important to be able to target that aid to the people who are suffering."
Congress authorized an extra $4.5 billion in energy assistance as part of the $1.9 trillion relief package passed earlier this month. But because it takes time to distribute that money, some customers may have their power cut off before the aid can reach them.
"What we're asking is for utilities to wait," said Wolfe, who represents state energy assistance officials. "We understand that they have customers that haven't paid the bills for a year. But funding is becoming available. So rather than have a family shut off from power, and go through the misery of that, why not just wait."
Charity McCombs went without power for more than a month last fall because of an unpaid bill. She stored food in camp coolers and used her car's battery to power a few lights.
McCombs, who lives in Lovilia, Iowa, remembers how relieved she was when an energy assistance program paid off her bill, and she was finally able to have hot water again.
"It was awesome," she said with a laugh. "I was actually surprised that they paid the full balance to get that turned back on. I was very thankful."
McCombs said the experience of going without power was a painful lesson.
"Don't get behind" on your electric bill, she warns. "Once you do, it's hard to catch up."