New analysis shows that Black tenants in Virginia spend the highest proportion of their income on energy costs and are most likely to experience utility shutoffs, making them especially vulnerable to extreme weather events.
By Kidest Gebre and Leah Jones, Virginia Interfaith Power & Light
When the COVID-19 pandemic upended lives in 2020, state governments across the US implemented sweeping protections against utility shut-offs to help their most vulnerable residents weather the public health emergency. As families remained stuck at home, these protections ensured that low-income residents could keep the lights on and their heating and cooling systems running. Utility shutoff moratoriums also protected residents from having to forgo other expenses like food and medical care, which potentially saved thousands of lives.
But when these moratoriums ended, many households were faced with crippling arrears and increasing rates in their utility bills. The situation in Virginia is especially dire: the state currently has the weakest protections against utility shut-offs among all southern states. More than 750,000 Virginia families are energy cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 6% of their income on home energy bills (versus 3% of income of middle income households). As the southeastern US gears up for what is predicted to be a hotter than average summer, nearly a quarter of Virginia households may not be able to afford the air conditioning needed to stay cool and healthy in their homes.
The energy affordability problem in Virginia
A recent issue brief from the Equity Fund’s technical assistance partner PSE Healthy Energy – Energy Cost Burdened: A Case for Utility Disconnection Protections in Virginia – sheds new light on the severity of the energy cost burden in Virginia, especially for Black renters. Here are some highlights from the analysis:
- One in four households in Virginia spend too much on energy bills. In 2021, roughly 24% of all Virginia households were energy cost burdened. This burden is driven by both high energy costs and low incomes. In urban areas like Richmond, higher energy cost burdens are concentrated in poor neighborhoods, while in more rural areas such as Pittsylvania County in southern Virginia, high energy cost burdens are mostly because of expensive fuel inputs.
- Renters are more likely to be energy burdened than homeowners. Black renters, specifically, bear the brunt of the energy cost burden in the state. White homeowners spend roughly 2.9% of their income on energy bills while Black renters pay about 4.6% of their income.
- 80% of low-income residents – nearly 700,000 households – in Virginia are energy cost burdened. At the median, low-income households in Virginia spend roughly 10% of their income on energy bills, which is three times higher than the average Virginia household. This makes it harder for families to cover other necessities like car payments, medication, and food.
- Disconnections are highest during the hottest months of the year. Each utility company has a different threshold for arrears before it disconnects a household, and the decision to disconnect a household is left up to the discretion of each individual company. For nearly all utilities, however, the highest number of reported disconnections occur between May and October when Virginia experiences the hottest weather and most destructive hurricanes.
Facing utility shutoffs exacerbates existing inequalities
One 2018 survey found that more than one in three households that received federal assistance for utility payments went without food for at least a day, and almost one in three families were unable to afford sufficient medicine. Many families also turned to alternative heating sources like ovens to warm their homes, despite the fact that gas-fired ovens can generate harmful indoor air pollution.
Being energy cost burdened can also make households more vulnerable to eviction. In Virginia, many of the areas with the highest levels of energy cost burden also have some of the highest eviction rates in the country. In general, low-income, Black renters face disproportionate levels of both housing and energy insecurity, making them among the most vulnerable to extreme climate events like heat waves, flooding, and storms—all of which are expected to intensify in the coming decades.
Energy cost burden is a policy choice
Organizations like Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, Virginia Organizing, and Appalachian Voices have long been calling for changes in state policy that protect Virginia’s most vulnerable residents from utility shutoffs. These groups have advocated for laws like House Bill 2283, which would have protected households from shutoffs during extreme heat or cold. Such laws serve as templates to enact strong utility disconnection protections for families most vulnerable to extreme shocks—including both climate or health-related events.
The state should also work to decrease energy cost burdens by enacting long-term affordability reforms and implementing energy efficiency programs targeted at households most at risk of shutoff. The moment to push for these policy changes is especially ripe given the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and other federal incentives that have unlocked millions of dollars for energy efficiency and equity programs.
Passing measures that protect residents from utility shut offs—which were proven to safeguard the health and wellbeing of thousands of people during the pandemic—would bring Virginia up to industry standard for shutoff protections and would allow the state to advance climate and energy justice.
Kidest Gebre is the Communications & Campaigns Manager at Virginia Interfaith Power & Light.
Leah Jones is the Organizing Coordinator and Water Justice Organizer at Virginia Interfaith Power & Light.