Hidden Heroes Keeping the Lights On

When most of us flip on a light switch, we often don’t give it a second thought — we just expect it to work.

But imagine if the power went out. In this new socially distant reality of ours, where most of us scarcely leave home, a power outage would create chaos and sever our connection to family, friends and work.

Reliable electricity is the common thread running through our new remote lifestyles, and thankfully there are utility company employees across the country working to make sure our homes, businesses and communities remain powered.

Engineers, systems operators, lineworkers, and the list goes on. Highly trained, these women and men are unsung heroes. They oversee the operation of thousands of power plants and millions of miles of transmission and distribution lines across America. They put their community’s needs above their own and keep us all connected.

Governed by local communities, public power systems are highly in tune with and responsive to the needs of their customers — it’s why we often say that that community is at the heart of public power’s mission to deliver reliable electricity.

The members of the Large Public Power Council, 27 of our nation’s largest nonprofit public power systems, are ensuring continuity of service for their collective 30 million customers while keeping workers healthy and safe, particularly those who are mission-critical and have to remain onsite.

From Seattle City Light to New York Power Authority, LPPC members were on the front lines as coronavirus first hit our country. As participants of our nation’s diverse municipal landscape, they worked with local and state governments, supported their communities, and kept the power on for millions across America.

Our members acted quickly to alleviate the financial burden experienced by families, businesses, and communities as a result of the pandemic. They suspended disconnects voluntarily, reconnected those already disconnected and are now offering a wide variety of options to help their customers through this time of hardship — including the waiving of late fees, expansion of assistance programs, and introduction of flexible payment plans.

However, with over 33 million Americans already filing for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold, we know that further financial assistance is needed to ensure families can power, heat, and cool their homes as the economic fallout from the pandemic persists.

LPPC members urge Congress to act and provide federal support for customers paying their bills. One example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, is a time-tested financial lifeline that helps hard-working Americans keep their lights on during challenging times.

The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association recommends that Congress provide an additional $4.3 billion for LIHEAP in the next coronavirus relief package. The National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition believes that these funds will allow states to serve approximately 11 million households, including newly laid-off workers, low-income families who were already struggling financially before this crisis and households with elderly members or pre-existing medical conditions who are sheltering in place with inadequate cooling measures at home. Just like the passage of direct relief for small business benefited the customers of public power, so too will the passage of this much-needed LIHEAP funding.

In contrast, any federally mandated disconnect or credit and collections policies will place public power systems and, in turn, our customers under further financial strain. While the motivations behind such policies are well intended, there are serious ramifications.

These one-size-fits-all policies limit flexibility and undermine public power’s ability to continue helping those in need. Instead, Congress ought to provide tangible support to struggling Americans through programs such as LIHEAP, offering certainty for both business and consumer.

As the pandemic progresses and the financial implications are brought to bear, the utility industry will experience difficulty reconciling a loss of load and an increase in financially distressed customers in need of aid. While public power, along with our dedicated utility workers, will continue to put their communities first and keep the nation’s lights on, we hope to see Congress act soon and provide federal support for those Americans struggling to pay their bills.

A 35-year veteran of the utility industry and the former general manager and CEO of Sacramento Municipal Utility District, John Di Stasio is the president of the Large Public Power Council, where he advocates for America’s largest public power systems in Washington, D.C.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult