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Climate and Environment

As Heat Waves Worsen, Many Say Utilities Shouldn’t Be Shut Off For Those Who Can’t Pay For Them

A group of people holding signs asking to stop energy cutoffs poses for a photo.
Angelenos rally outside the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on Sept. 27, 2022.
(Erin Stone
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A coalition of Angelenos is calling for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to permanently end water and power shut-offs for nonpayment.

More than two dozen people, many from South L.A. and the San Fernando Valley who are currently struggling to pay their bills, gathered outside the agency’s headquarters downtown on Tuesday.

“Fight, fight, fight, power is a human right!” they chanted before heading inside to voice their concerns at the agency’s board meeting.

Amid historic rising temperatures and skyrocketing living costs, they demand that affordable utilities are guaranteed for everyone.

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“We’re not talking about a luxury, we're talking about a human right,” said Gloria Medina, executive director of South L.A.-based social justice group Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, or SCOPE. “Being able to power your home, take care of your children, take care of the seniors in your home, being able to keep medication refrigerated.”

The Status On Moratoriums

Like many cities and states across the nation, L.A. put a moratorium on utility shut-offs during the pandemic. That moratorium ended this past March.

Earlier this year, the city forgave utility debt for some 280,000 Angelenos. According to LADWP data, Angelenos in central and south L.A. and the San Fernando Valley face the highest utility debt, a pattern that has remained even with significant state and federal funding to help.

Efforts To Help

Between 2017 and 2020, more than 77,000 Angelenos had their power shut off at least once, according to LADWP. Since the pandemic moratorium ended this year, the agency said it hasn’t shut off anyone’s power or water for nonpayment.

There are some other efforts to help. Recently, the agency launched its “Cool LA” program for income-qualified and medically-vulnerable Angelenos. Among other things, the program offers rebates of $225 to purchase air conditioning units and allows customers to opt in to a program to spread their utility bills out evenly over a yearlong period, to avoid spikes in costs during extreme weather.

The agency also has payment assistance programs through energy efficiency programs and rate assistance programs.

Who Is Struggling

But Medina said many in her community are still struggling to pay the bills and that the message on the available assistance isn’t reaching the people who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and extreme heat.

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“It's very connected to this climate crisis that we're going through right now, that we're starting to see the deadly consequences are really connected to the ability of folks to be able to have access to affordable water and power,” Medina said.

She said some families in her community have as much as $20,000 in utility debt. Low-income households are more likely to pay a far higher percentage of their total income to energy bills—what’s called the “energy burden.” And because lower-income families often live in housing that can’t keep out the heat or cold—in other words, those homes aren’t “energy efficient”—those bills can be even higher.

"All the expenses that we have with our children and the rent, all these minimum costs, it is really difficult to afford [utilities]," said Guadalupe Rivas, speaking in Spanish at Tuesday's meeting.

According to LADWP, households making less than $50,000 are more than twice as likely to experience shutoffs for nonpayment than households making more than that. Black and Latino communities are also more than twice as likely to face power shutoffs.

Next Steps

At Tuesday’s board meeting, LADWP officials said they’re considering a variety of ways to address the shutoffs issue, including pausing shut-offs during extreme weather events.

The pandemic and worsening extreme heat has brought the conversation around utility shutoffs to the forefront in ways it hasn’t been before. Arizona, for example, revised its shutoff rules last year after a woman died in 2018 in her home as a result of extreme heat after her power was cut for lack of payment.

Tips to stay cool
    • Kiddie pool
    • Lotions in the fridge
    • Eat spicy foods in the basement (or on the floor) while wearing a damp shirt and listening to the rain setting on your white noise machine
    • Make sure ceiling fans are running counterclockwise
    • Wet paper towels. Fold into ankle and wrist cuffs. Freeze. Wear. Repeat.
    • Build a DIY AC
    • Build a mini cold air fan
    • Build an "evaporative cooler for immediate heat relief"
    • Make a barricade of fans and ice cubes
    • Go to an air-conditioned store and browse for as long as possible (Target is a good option for this).
    • Close all the curtains, preferably the heat-absorbing kind
    • Or open all the windows, depending on the breeze situation
    • Cool bath or shower twice a day
    • Wash your sheets before bed but don't dry them — put them on your bed damp (provided you're dealing with a dry heat)
    • Portable A/C unit

Staying safe in the heat
    • Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink water or electrolyte-replacements
    • Drink cool water, not extremely cold water (which can cause cramps)
    • Avoid sweetened drinks, caffeine, and alcohol
  • Protect a pet from excessive heat

    • Never leave a pet or animal in a garage
    • Never leave a pet or animal in a vehicle
    • Never leave a pet or animal in the sun
    • Provide shade
    • Provide clean drinking water
  • Protect a human from excessive heat

  • Check in frequently with family, friends, and neighbors. Offer assistance or rides to those who are sick or have limited access to transportation. And give extra attention to people most at risk, including:

    • Elderly people (65 years and older)
    • Infants
    • Young children
    • People with chronic medical conditions
    • People with mental illness
    • People taking certain medications (i.e.: "If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask how much you should drink while the weather is hot," says the CDC)
Climate Emergency Questions
Fires. Mudslides. Heat waves. What questions do you need answered as you prepare for the effects of the climate emergency?