- The COVID-19 public health crisis brought into sharp relief the importance of shifting benefits to more vulnerable communities, participants said at a Monday panel during the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Summer Policy Summit.
- Responses range from energy efficiency targets and community solar offerings to a direct cost-shift for programs that will save customers money. During COVID-19, National Grid customers no longer paid 25% of the cost, as the utility assumed responsibility for the customers' share of the expenses, according to Raquel Webster, the utility's senior counsel.
- Equity considerations are increasingly part of utility discussions as moratoriums on service shutoff are set to end and companies consider how to support their customers while recovering costs.
Utilities are being asked by stakeholders and regulators to continue investing in clean energy and energy efficiency "while balancing the pressures that our customers are paying," as aggressive savings goals can become large expenses in the near term for customers, Webster said on the panel.
"COVID has a disproportionate impact on African Americans, that's an area that I think could be a focus for not only National Grid but other utilities and stakeholders," Webster said.
According to an epidemiology study published this summer by six universities, Black communities are impacted more heavily by COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States than other communities.
The economic and health crisis, combined with the racial inequity in the country, could be an opportunity for utilities to deploy advanced metering infrastructure data (AMI), Arkansas Public Service Commissioner Kimberly O'Guinn said on the panel. The costly technology has been rejected by some utility regulators in the past when utilities did not adequately prove how data would be used to benefit customers. However, O'Guinn says participants in low-income communities could see benefits if the deployments are leveraged with prepaid programs to not increase costs for customers.
"I think having that data from AMI and working with those community action groups will be beneficial to ... decrease those gaps in the public," regarding inequity, she said.
Nicor Gas, an Illinois-based gas utility within Southern Company Gas, wants to adapt its programs to stretch tariffs in economically depressed areas, Lewis Binswanger, vice president of the utility's external affairs, said on the panel. Nicor serves a large population of customers in low-income communities that have been hit by unemployment during the public health crisis.
"Equity should be a component of clean energy going forward," Melanie Santiago-Mosier, managing director of Vote Solar's access & equity program, said.
The advocacy group Vote Solar is dedicating part of its regulatory team to "clean relief for energy debt," seeking policies to prioritize clean energy while lessening the burden of energy costs for low-income communities.