Too many blackouts: How underserved communities are making utilities listen


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Quick takes:

  • Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color can experience more frequent power outages than whiter and more affluent neighborhoods.
  • Important decisions that affect energy costs and service are made by obscure technocratic panels, without input from the communities most affected.
  • Community leaders are fighting to get their voices heard in the rooms where utility decisions happens.

Cheryl Watson has lived for 60 years in the same bungalow where she grew up in Chatham, on the south side of Chicago. For most people, losing electricity is an inconvenience, but in an aging, underserved community like Chatham, a power outage can quickly become a crisis.


“Houses around here didn’t need AC when I was growing up, but now climate change means they do,” says Watson. “When we lose power in the summer, it can become a medical emergency for older folks like me.”


Chronic disinvestment in Chatham, where the population is mostly Black and middle and lower-income, compounds these risks.

“If there’s even a little rain, the neighborhood floods and you’re trapped, and the nearest decent hospital is miles away,” says Watson.


What’s worse, communities like Chatham are more likely to experience a dangerous power failure.


In Chicago, power outages are 83% more frequent, and last 140% longer, in low-wealth and minority communities compared to whiter, wealthier communities.


These disparities are due in part to older, less reliable electric infrastructure. Neighborhoods without critical facilities like hospitals, and without a growing number of new solar connections, are not prioritized for upgrades.


Plus, members of these underserved communities have historically not been at the table when energy decisions are being made. If they’re unable to express their experiences, their concerns cannot be taken into account.


Environmental Defense Fund attorney Christie Hicks is working to get community voices in the room where it happens.

Public utility commissions call the shots

Utilities are regulated by small, technocratic bodies called public utility commissions. Typically composed of three to five members appointed by the governor, they control what rates utilities can charge, how they distribute costs between residential and industrial customers and what energy infrastructure they can build.


People who submit testimony during a commission’s public hearings are generally engineers, economists, scientists, “or someone else with a lot of letters after their name,” says Hicks.


There’s no legal reason why a community member can’t testify. But there are a lot of barriers.


“You need an attorney, you have to understand this really nuanced body of law, and make sense of some truly arcane language and procedures,” says Hicks.


Plus, it’s not how things have historically been done at these slow-to-evolve commissions.

Local expertise is key

Hicks is developing a system for collecting and incorporating testimony from community members into public utility legal proceedings. It’s a little like collecting citizen science, but in a legal context. She’s researching different techniques that community members can use to document what is really going on in their communities, like the lingering effects of shuttered fossil fuel facilities.


Hicks and her team are also evaluating cases where this kind of testimony will have the biggest impact.


“The goal is to have lived experience in an impacted community recognized as a legitimate form of expertise,” says Hicks.


Her initial efforts are already paying off. Hicks recently worked with Watson to submit testimony in a case about evaluating utility performance. The commission sided with Watson and EDF. It will now require the utility to provide data that will clearly show if certain neighborhoods are receiving less reliable service than others.


And the utility will have a portion of its profits tied to how it performs, based on these equity-focused numbers.


“It all begins with who is at the table when decisions are being made,” says Watson. “If people from frontline communities, who are the keepers of their community’s history, are not at the table, then history is destined to be repeated.”


Changing how utilities do business isn’t going to happen overnight, says Hicks, but she is motivated by the community leaders she works with, who are relentless in their push for progress.


“As one of my community members likes to remind me,” says Hicks, “it ain’t over till we win.”



This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by

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Feeling the crunch of higher utility bills? This home tech can help


As gas prices surge across the country, many Americans are looking for ways to save on energy costs, both in their cars and at home. Over the last few years, the evolving Internet of Things has introduced a wide array of new smart devices that could help cut down your utility bills. Here are four relatively inexpensive smart home technologies that can lower your energy costs.


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Smart thermostats are easy to install since they’re wired like a regular thermostat, but you can control the settings through an app on your phone, and program them to save energy in a variety of ways.

“If you leave your home during the day, a smart thermostat can save you money by automatically turning down the thermostat when you leave,” says Stacey Higginbotham, host of the Internet of Things podcast. You can also change your heating and cooling settings with the click of a button, or schedule automatic adjustments.

Nest and ecobee are popular smart thermostat brands, while Amazon also makes a smart thermostat, which may be appealing if you already use Alexa at home.

“Once consumers start by connecting their thermostat to an energy-saving program, it’s a quick jump to connecting other smart devices around the home, including smart appliances, EV chargers, battery storage systems, and the list continues to grow,” says James McPhail, CEO of energy resource management company Enersponse.


Most smart bulbs are LED, which last longer than incandescent bulbs and can save you about $225 per year. Plus, you can control your lighting through an app on your phone or voice assistant, just like a smart thermostat. You can schedule lights to turn on and off, a handy feature if you frequently forget to flip the switch. Smart LED bulbs from Philips Hue, LIFX and Wyze are slightly more expensive up front than regular LED bulbs, but they’ll lead to savings over time.


Estradaanton / istockphoto


If you want to dip your toe into the smart home pool before making a larger investment, you can try smart plugs, which can save 500 to 1,000 kilowatts per year. These relatively inexpensive devices from Philips Hue, TP-Link and Kasa plug into regular electrical sockets to make them a little smarter. Simply plug any device into the smart plug, and you’ll be able to turn it on and off using an app on your phone or with your voice if you connect them to a voice assistant.





Many smart home devices can be connected to an energy monitor, which helps you better understand your energy usage. “With the advent of the Internet of Things, consumers have more power than ever before to take charge of their energy consumption, with several smart home energy management systems (SHEMS) available,” says Jeff Hendler, CEO of smart buildings company Logical Buildings.

Energy monitors provide real-time insight into your energy trends, which helps pinpoint where you can reduce costs. “I think we are going to see a shift from conservation, which only takes us so far, to resilience and more effective use of the energy coming into our homes,” says Higginbotham.

Smappee, The Home Energy by Sense and Vue by Emporia Energy are some of the best-selling home energy monitors on the market today.


Hendler points out that utilities in some states, such as California, New York and Texas, will actually pay consumers to demonstrate energy reduction when the power grid needs it most.

“This mega-trend of smart meter rollout supported by the expansion of smart devices in the home is creating a major power shift, where the utility actually pays residents for a change,” he says. “This cost-saving dynamic is now more important than ever with residents facing rising energy costs while working from home.”


This article
originally appeared on 
Policygenius.comand was syndicated





Featured Image Credit: Magnifical Productions / iStock.