Last week, the polar vortex resulted in millions of Texans losing power for extended periods of time. After three days, approximately hundreds of thousands of residents were without electricity and faced freezing temperatures in their homes with more severe weather rolling in.
With each passing day, we learned more grim details. There were reports that marginalized communities were some of the first to face outages and were especially hard hit by the conditions. And there were reports that many suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning due to the use of ovens or running cars for warmth, while others literally froze to death from the harsh conditions.
These horrific events are unthinkable, but not uncommon. Millions of Americans face similar conditions all across the United States on a daily basis. Our country has a severe and growing problem of energy insecurity.
Energy insecurity is a term used to describe the state of not being able to pay one’s energy bill or not having access to affordable energy services. One source estimates that, as of 2015, 14 million households each year struggle to pay their energy bills and 2 million are disconnected by their energy service provider.
We have tracked rates of energy insecurity among low-income households over the course of the pandemic and found that, just within the first month of the pandemic, 2.4 million households were unable to pay their energy bills and almost a million households had their power shut off. Within a few months of the pandemic, these rates got worse.
The Texas electricity blackout is a catastrophe many years in the making from under-investment and under-appreciation of the fragility of our infrastructure, but it also shines a light on the more chronic problem of energy insecurity. Like many other problems in the U.S., energy insecurity is characterized by enormous racial and income disparities. Research shows that households of color are significantly more likely to be energy insecure than white households. An African American household, for example, is over three times more likely to be disconnected from electricity or gas service than a white household and a Hispanic household is six times more likely than a white household.
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