DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The pandemic safety net is disappearing. Congress is negotiating how to extend it. But this week, supplemental unemployment benefits run out, a ban on evictions ends and also another threat - a patchwork of moratoriums on cutting off electricity and water are starting to expire. NPR's Nathan Rott has been looking into this. Hi, Nate.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So we're talking about a lot of people who could lose power here?
ROTT: Yeah. So that's the thing, we really don't know how many people because most states don't actually have to disclose how many people they disconnect. But from the numbers that we do have, it seems that it's likely that it's millions of people we're talking about. For example, in Michigan alone earlier this month, about 700,000 households were more than 30 days behind in their utility bills. In North Carolina, the number was close to a million, so that's just two states. So in all likelihood, you have millions of people at risk of being cut off from their power at a time when the pandemic is forcing people to stay at home more. And, of course, David, it's summer. It's hot. People need electricity for air conditioning.
GREENE: Yeah, and some places, depending on where you are, like, desperately need air conditioning.
GREENE: So what are people saying? I mean, you've heard from people who have even already lost their electricity, right?
ROTT: Yeah. I talked to a woman in Florida who was disconnected. I've talked to people in other states who are worried about it. You know, utility watchdogs and advocates for low-income folks think that we're right at the cusp of a tidal wave of shutdowns. My colleague Molly Samuel of member station WABE has been looking at how the situation is playing out in Georgia.
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MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Wykeisha Howe says, with five kids living at home, she knows how to be thrifty. During Atlanta's sweltering summers, she doesn't turn the AC down too much. And she runs a fan. She'll try to cook both lunch and dinner as one big meal so she doesn't have to turn on her electric stove twice.
WYKEISHA HOWE: I give my kids Icees or freeze pops to kind of keep them cool in the middle of the day. I let them go outside and have a ice cream.
SAMUEL: Still, she's about a month and a half behind on her energy bill. And Georgia Power ended its shut off moratorium July 15.
HOWE: We're worried about, you know, having a disconnection in the middle of the summer, in the middle of a pandemic.
SAMUEL: By the end of the moratorium, close to 97,000 Georgia Power customers were two months or more behind on bills. The utility doesn't disconnect people on days when there's a heat advisory. Georgia also has declared a public health emergency. And Georgia Power won't disconnect anyone who's medically fragile as long as that lasts. The utility has an extended payment plan to help people like Howe. There's also a federal energy assistance program and nonprofits that help with bills, too. Still, consumer advocate Liz Coyle of Georgia Watch says charities that could help are seriously strained right now.
LIZ COYLE: The system is overwhelmed. Even though people are working around the clock to try to help people, there's just so much need right now in the state.
SAMUEL: In many cases, the organizations that offer help on utilities are also trying to help people get food on the table and pay their rent. Allison Gregory is a spokeswoman for Georgia Power.
ALLISON GREGORY: We know that this is still, like, a very critical time with the pandemic still going on. We want to be flexible with our customers. We want to give them options.
TIM ECHOLS: Georgia Power's not a charity.
SAMUEL: Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols pushes back on the idea that the moratorium should have continued longer. He says he's concerned that so many people are falling behind on their bills since they'll have to catch up eventually.
ECHOLS: Letting them dig further holes with their arrearage and being behind with power company is not helpful.
SAMUEL: But Georgia Power and its shareholders won't have to cover most of that debt. For bills that never get paid, the debt could eventually largely be covered by Georgia Power's other customers on their power bills.
ROTT: And, David, what reporter Molly Samuel just said there is something that I have heard from other utilities as well. And we're talking about billions of dollars. The trade association for rural electric co-ops, which makes up about only 13% of the market, anticipates that its members will be looking at a $2.6 billion in unpaid bills by the end of next year.
GREENE: I mean, wow, this is an extraordinary situation. I mean, could the federal government help here in some way, Nate, to keep power and water running for people who are clearly vulnerable?
ROTT: Yeah, so advocates for low-income households and utility watchdogs are asking for a national moratorium on power shutoffs, you know, similar to the one that's expiring for evictions. They're also seeking more funding for low-income energy assistance. One in three households had a hard time paying for their power before the pandemic in America. COVID-19 is only amplifying that energy insecurity. And it's disproportionately affecting racial minorities, the same groups that are more likely to have a negative outcome from the virus.
GREENE: All right, talking to NPR's Nathan Rott. Nate, thanks a lot.
ROTT: Thank you, David.
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