By Matthew Kandrach
In the wake of nearly 40 million jobless claims in recent weeks, Americans are clearly struggling to pay the bills. In fact, a new national poll found that nearly 50 percent of registered voters are increasingly worried about paying for household expenses, including electricity.
This isn’t surprising given the havoc that the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked on the country. But it reinforces the fragility of the U.S. economy — and why careful decision-making will be needed to get the nation back on its feet.
So, what to do when millions of Americans are hurting in a way not seen in generations?
One step is to ensure that the basic necessities of life do not become unnecessarily more expensive. And that starts with families being able to pay for the electricity needed to keep their homes livable during lockdown this summer.
A pandemic requires exactly this type of blunt, realistic thinking: “How do we make sure families can stay in their homes? How do we hold down costs and make sure budgets aren’t stretched beyond the breaking point?”
It’s likely that we’re only in the early stages of the pandemic and recovery. But the financial toll to date suggests that we’re already facing several years of a potentially serious economic downturn. And so, common sense dictates that we start planning right now to ensure families can keep paying for basic expenses over the next few years.
Here’s one approach that public officials should consider: Right now, we simply don’t have the luxury of tinkering with the nation’s power grid. In recent years, there’s been plenty of well-intentioned talk about emissions targets and renewable energy mandates. But lawmakers, utilities, and public service commissions will need to change how they think about energy for the foreseeable future. Their priority must shift toward ensuring that the American people still have access to affordable, reliable power.
What will that mean? For starters, families can’t afford to see their electric bills start climbing simply because baseload power plants—like reliable coal plants that have kept their electricity bills steady and manageable — are pushed into premature retirement to meet arbitrary renewable energy targets. Yet that’s already happening across the nation, with utilities marking up their rates and raising consumer prices to cover the expense of building new energy infrastructure.
Even before the current pandemic the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) warned that one-third of U.S. homes were facing challenges in paying for electricity. Does anyone doubt that this burden will now increase?
Compassion for our fellow Americans means recognizing that literally millions of families can’t afford to have their electricity bills rise by even a few dollars a month. And they certainly can’t face power outages or brownouts during peak demand. Reliability and affordability have suddenly become more important than ever in the shadow of an epidemic that has turned the U.S. economy upside down. The nation must pursue an energy policy that ensures balanced, secure, and affordable electricity.
Matthew Kandrach is the president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy (CASE), a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.