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Opinion

Commentary: Pennsylvania Should Ban Utility Shutoffs in Extreme Summer Heat | Opinion

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by Ray Landis, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
August 2, 2023

Headlines around the globe this summer have featured the heat and extreme weather impacting the Northern Hemisphere. Fires, floods, and record setting temperatures have stretched from Europe to North America to China as governments and people try to adjust to what appears to be a new normal for our climate.

A growing concern as temperatures rise are heat-related illnesses and deaths. The Centers for Disease Control has reported a spike in emergency room visits related to extreme temperatures this year, and a recent study of excess mortality in Europe estimated more than 60,000 people died of heat-related causes in Europe during the record-setting summer of 2022.

Reports from places like Arizona and Texas of temperatures in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit have garnered recent attention. But thermometer readings do not need to be that extreme to be dangerous, especially in areas like Pennsylvania not used to long stretches of such heat and with an older population. The elderly, particularly individuals who live in older homes, can be more vulnerable to illnesses due to both heat and cold. 

As the number of days of extreme heat increases, it has become apparent that cooling systems are becoming a necessity in the commonwealth. But the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Housing Survey estimated 300,000 Pennsylvania homes had no air conditioning. An additional 50,000 dwellings were getting by on a single room air conditioner.

The good news in that number is that the situation seems to be improving: The 2019 survey had estimated the number of housing units in the commonwealth without air conditioning to be around 400,000. But the bad news is hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians still cannot get relief from sweltering summer temperatures at home and are endangering their health.

Pennsylvania has recognized the danger cold wealth presents to the well-being of its residents. Low-income households cannot have their electricity, water, or gas service terminated due to non-payment from December 1 through March 31. This law, commonly known as Chapter 14, was first established in 2004 and was renewed for 10 years in 2014. It is set to expire in 2024 and must be renewed by this session of the General Assembly. 

Chapter 14 is currently silent on utility shutoffs during summer months, however. And information from the state Public Utility Commission shows utilities are not shy about shutting off service to customers. Utilities shut off service almost 150,000 times from June 2022 to June 2023, a figure that would have been higher if not for the commonwealth’s second-largest electricity supplier, PPL, suspending terminations this spring because of billing issues.

Utility customers must make a reasonable effort to pay their bills. But with utility costs soaring along with the prices of other necessities such as food and housing, low-income individuals, particularly those on relatively fixed incomes, struggle to keep the lights on, the faucet flowing, and the oven roasting – and to stay reasonably cool in the summer. 

There are numerous utility and government-sponsored programs to help customers with their bills and to make their homes more energy efficient in order to keep costs lower. But far too many people are unaware of these opportunities, even if they are enrolled in another assistance program. Some coordination takes place, but automatic enrollment for those already participating in a different need-based program would benefit thousands of Pennsylvanians.

A change benefitting the health and welfare of even more Pennsylvanians would be to establish a summer moratorium on utility shutoffs. We know high temperatures impact the commonwealth from June through September, but even a July and August moratorium would protect lower-income residents from the dangers of excessive heat in their homes during the hottest time of the summer. Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Matzie D-Beaver, chair of the House consumer protection, utilities, and technology committee, introduced legislation to reauthorize Chapter 14, which includes a ban on summer utility terminations.

Our experience in the past few summers shows extreme heat is here in Pennsylvania for the foreseeable future. Efforts to slow down global warming are critical, but it is also critical to the health and safety of residents of the commonwealth to adapt to the climate reality we are facing.

We have an opportunity, with the reauthorization of Chapter 14, to help vulnerable Pennsylvanians deal with the immediate impacts of rising summer temperatures. It is inevitable we will need to take further steps but let us get started by banning the termination of utility services in the hottest summer months.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.