The Energy Policy Response to COVID-19: Lessons Learned and Policy Considerations For State Legislatures

Austin Igleheart and Christopher McMichael 10/27/2021

The energy sector, like many aspects of American life, was forced to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Government and industry responded to the pandemic emergency in unprecedented but necessary ways to ensure critical energy services continued to be delivered. However, the lessons of the past year have caused many states to rethink emergency response policies so they are better equipped to manage future emergencies.

The pandemic has raised questions regarding how governors exercise their executive authority during emergencies, how states designate essential workers in critical sectors and how to protect customers’ access to vital utility services like electricity and natural gas in the midst of sudden financial hardship.

In the initial stages of the pandemic, most of the emergency response was directed from the executive branch, allowing states to quickly respond to the rapidly evolving pandemic. However, the expansion of executive power has been viewed by many legislatures as an overreach and recent legislation has aimed to increase legislative oversight of executive powers during emergencies

Another early question raised by the pandemic centered around which workers were considered “essential.” States adopted legislation or policies dealing with essential worker designations, with most following federal guidance. More recently, state legislatures have considered whether certain critical infrastructure sectors—including the energy sector—ought to be considered essential under all future emergency declarations and have passed legislation formalizing these essential worker designations or have devised other laws to protect essential workers.

Because of the economic hardships faced by many Americans during the pandemic, many states found it necessary to pass legislation restricting utility disconnections and providing bill payment assistance to customers. These laws directly affected utility companies, which have had to manage a shift in energy consumption patterns along with the lost revenue due to the amount of bills in arrears. Several states are considering extending these moratoriums and assistance programs, especially for low-income residents. 

This report examines how state governments responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an emphasis on policies that affect the energy sector. It also provides context and examples of policies and legislation some state legislatures are considering to ensure states are better prepared for future emergencies. 

Key Takeaways and Legislative Considerations

Oversight of Governor’s Emergency Powers without Inhibiting Response
  • State legislatures have considered exercising several types of checks on governors’ emergency authority in light of recent actions during declared emergencies in response to COVID-19, which some legislatures viewed as extraordinary in their breadth and duration.
  • State legislatures have also recognized the importance of a swift and unified state response during the initial stages of an emergency, and largely preserved governors’ emergency powers during the first 120 days of emergency response.
  • In many cases, governors’ authority in response to energy emergencies has not been directly affected.
Recognizing the Importance of Essential Workers
  • State legislatures have considered establishing “essential worker” designations in state law to ensure these critical workers remain able to perform their functions in future emergencies without the need for special designation from a governor or state agency.
  • State legislatures have considered legislation to establish safety procedures, provide extra benefits and hazard pay, and priority access to personal protective equipment, vaccination and other necessary goods and services for essential workers during future emergencies.
  • State legislation and other policy action has widely recognized the vital role the energy sector plays in protecting human health and safety, and the fact that the energy sector is essential to the continued operation of other essential sectors, such as healthcare, communications and water infrastructure. For this reason, energy sector workers have been included in “essential worker” and “mission-essential critical infrastructure worker” designations. 
Utility Disconnection Moratoriums Saved Lives
  • State legislatures have considered establishing and extending utility disconnection moratoriums to protect individuals and families from losing access to essential services during hardships. 
  • Most of these actions have been limited to the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, but some states have proposed extending these protections into the future for certain groups, including low-income and disabled individuals. 
Bill Payment Assistance is Needed for Consumers and Utilities Alike
  • State legislatures have proposed expanding access to and funding for payment assistance programs, as well as requiring utilities offer reasonable repayment plans without penalties to customers facing financial hardship.
  • State legislatures have considered requiring utilities to use Percentage of Income Payment Plans (PIPPs), which cap utility payments for eligible households at a percentage of income, with the balance typically covered through rate increases. 
  • State legislation has proposed expanding home weatherization and energy efficiency retrofit programs to enable longer-term savings and other benefits for customers.

Governors’ Emergency Authorities

Local governments were the first to respond to the pandemic, issuing jurisdictional orders. Many state governments soon realized that a unified and consistent statewide approach was necessary. 

Governors are authorized to declare states of emergency, which trigger an expansion of certain executive powers until the emergency ends. This expansion of power involves authority typically reserved for state legislatures, such as the power to create new laws or suspend existing statutes as needed to respond to the emergency. At the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency, some legislatures acted to authorize this expansion of executive power or specified where the governor’s power applied. However, as the As the pandemic progressed, state legislatures began constraining executive emergency authority. States with active emergency orders.

For instance, Maryland HB 1663 (enacted March 2020) authorized the expansion of the governor’s authority related to the COVID-19 emergency. Among other actions, the bill allows the governor to curtail price gouging of certain goods and services, including the authority to regulate the price of fuel and energy sources to ensure that retailers, such as gas stations, do not increase their value of profit by more than 10%. 

Similarly, Maine SP 789 (enacted March 2020) allowed the state’s executive branch to implement provisions regarding state-regulated utilities, among other sectors. The bill provided the governor with the authority to suspend the termination of residential electricity services for the duration of the emergency and up to 60 days following the end of the state of emergency.

Most of these actions to expand executive power were limited to the duration of declared states of emergency. Due to the prolonged nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have extended these emergency declarations and thereby also extended the expansion of executive powers. As of October 2021, 24 states still had public health-related emergency declarations in place.

Limits to Emergency Executive Authority

Recent legislation regarding state executive emergency powers has been aimed at rescinding provisions of executive orders or limiting future use of that power. In 2020 and 2021, at least 22 states enacted legislation that limited the governor’s power or enhanced legislative oversight of that power during periods of emergency. Similar legislation is pending in an additional 12 states. These legislative efforts included provisions such as requiring legislative approval for executive orders, the reporting of emergency response plans to the legislature, or time restrictions on emergency declarations.

Some legislatures made broad changes to executive emergency powers that have implications for energy emergencies and the energy industry. For example, Kentucky SB 1 includes restrictions on the governor’s emergency powers that are generally applicable to executive orders issued under emergency declarations, regardless of the type of emergency declared. The bill defines emergency broadly as “any incident or situation which poses a major threat to public safety.” As such, energy emergencies would be included under the new limitations and restrict the governor’s exercise of power during these types of emergencies. The bill limits the term of the governor’s emergency orders to 30 days unless specifically requested by local government; the governor’s orders will remain in effect in only that locality and only for the time requested. The Kentucky legislature overrode the governor’s veto to enact the new law in February 2021.

Similarly, Utah SB 195 (enacted, March 2021) provides that a state of emergency may be declared by the governor, but expires 30 days after issuance unless the legislature extends the emergency declaration by joint resolution. The bill also allows the legislature to terminate an emergency order issued by the governor at any time by joint resolution. The bill does not distinguish between different types of emergencies, so energy emergencies could potentially be affected by this bill. 

Idaho HB 392 (enacted, May 2021) explicitly prevents the governor from altering, adjusting, or creating any provision of the Idaho Code during declared states of emergency. This would affect the energy sector in Idaho as it prevents the governor from amending laws related to energy even during energy emergencies. 

Most legislation passed recently on emergency powers is specific to the COVID-19 pandemic and thus does not directly address energy emergencies. Nevertheless, some of this legislation will have implications on a governor’s power during energy emergencies or on emergencies that affect energy production, distribution, or use.

For more detailed information on this topic, please review the NCSL resource on the Legislative Oversight of Emergency Executive Power.

Essential Worker Designations

DC PR MP GU AS VI AL AK AZ AR CA CO CT DE FL GA HI ID IL IN IA KS KY LA ME MD MA MI MN MS MO MT NE NV NH NJ NM NY NC* ND OH OK OR PA RI SC SD TN TX UT VT VA WA WV WI WY

States That Have Created Their Own Guidance

States That Have Used Federal Guidance

States With No Guidance

*as of May 2020, state is no longer designating businesses as essential.

 

The energy sector continues to be critical to modern life, the economy and numerous other industries. Disruption of service, as seen during the Texas power outages of winter 2020, can have disastrous impacts on the health and livelihood of individuals, businesses and communities. As such, most workers in the energy industry were designated as “essential critical infrastructure workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. Other systems critical to the energy sector are also considered “essential” during times of emergency. These include, but are not limited to, the electric grid systems, grid control room operators, natural gas network, gas pipeline and transmission systems, renewable energy generation, and manufacturing and construction industry essential to energy systems.

At least 43 states and Washington, D.C. issued “essential worker designations” during the COVID-19 emergency. About half of those states used the guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) regarding essential worker designations while the other half created their own designations. The federal guidance, which is advisory in nature, is intended to help state, local, tribal and territorial officials prioritize scarce resources for workers in essential sectors in order to preserve continuity of functions critical to public health and safety during the pandemic response. More recently, state legislatures have considered establishing laws regarding “essential worker” designations as well as safety procedures, benefits, and priority access to testing and vaccinations for critical infrastructure workers so that there is no need for special designations from the executive branch during future emergencies.

Federal Guidelines

The CISA federal guidance designates energy industry workers as part of the critical infrastructure workforce, grouping them into three subcategories: electricity, petroleum and natural gas. Under the federal guidance, workers in these industries “supporting the energy system” that are needed to “construct, manufacture, repair, transport, permit, monitor, operate, engineer, and maintain the reliability, safety, security, environmental health, and physical and cyber security of the energy system” are considered essential workers. The federal guidance included a wide range of energy workers, underscoring the importance of the industry and its workforce regardless of the type of emergency that is declared. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) wrote a letter to the CDC advocating for the inclusion of the energy and electric utility workforce in earlier stages of the vaccine allocation categories. FERC also wrote a similar letter for oil and gas industry workers. The letters recognized the importance of the “highly skilled” workforce necessary to provide the country with energy allow the nation’s “critical infrastructure” to function.

The federal government also encouraged states to prioritize essential critical infrastructure workers in vaccination plans. The CDC recommended that a tiered approach to vaccination plans include critical infrastructure workers in the energy sector as one of the earliest groups to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. Secretary of Energy emphasized the importance of energy to the nation’s infrastructure, operations and national security by writing letters and coordinating with state governors. The letters also suggested that energy sector workers be provided with PPE, access to testing, and cleaning equipment. Eventually, the Secretary sent letters to the governors of 55 states and territories urging them to prioritize critical energy sector workers for priority access to testing and the COVID-19 vaccine.

State Specific Guidance

Double exposure of Asian Engineer or Technician woman wearing N95 mask while using tablet with offshore platform Protection against contagious disease, coronavirus for industrial business concept.

Rather than adopting the federal guidance outright, about half of the states decided to issue their own essential worker designations through executive order. Most of these used the CISA guidance as a starting point and then adjusted based on the particular needs and industries of the state. For instance, Washington—which is home to the Hanford nuclear cleanup site—included hazardous materials workers and workers at nuclear waste cleanup facilities in its essential workers designation. Similarly, West Virginia added a section to the federal guidelines which specifically designates workers in the state’s coal industry as part of its essential workforce. In some cases, state executive branch agencies prioritized energy sector and utility workers, along with other essential critical infrastructure workers, for vaccination, testing or personal protective equipment (PPE).

For example, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services explicitly authorized utility workers in the energy sector—including gas, electric, power, oil and biofuel refining—as a priority population for COVID-19 testing. Minnesota’s Department of Health included essential energy workers in a priority phase to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. It defined essential energy workers broadly as workers unable to telework “who construct, manufacture, repair, transport, permit, monitor, operate, engineer, and maintain the energy sector … including those in the electricity industry, petroleum workers, and natural propane and gas workers.” Similarly, the New Mexico Department of Health prioritized “energy industry personnel” and utility workers that are “engaged in power generation [and] fuel supply and transmission” in an early phase of its vaccine allocation plan.

Every state that issued essential worker designations chose to designate the energy sector and its workforce as essential, although the definitions and level of priority given to the energy sector varied from state to state.

Since the initial state executive orders designating essential workers, several states have considered legislation to codify essential worker designations in state law to avoid confusion and enable a quicker, more cohesive state response during future emergencies. Hawaii HB 643 (pending 2021) adds a definition of “essential worker” to the state’s emergency management statute and adds protections for those workers so their work is not disrupted. Hawaii’s definition of “essential worker” would include any person employed by a business or service in the energy sector, along with numerous other industries. Similarly, Florida introduced HB 1617 (failed, 2021) which would have created an advisory council to determine which industries were considered “essential” in a future pandemic or disease-related emergencies. 

Other “essential worker” legislation is focused on protocols regarding essential workers rather than which industries count as essential. For example, Michigan SB 1258 (enacted 2020) provides that workers who perform essential energy services may report to work even if they could have been exposed to COVID-19 as long as they are not experiencing any symptoms, and have not tested positive for COVID-19. Minnesota HB 4531 (enacted 2020) allows critical energy sector workers to delay the submission of fingerprints for state-required background checks during declared emergencies, which speaks to the importance of being able to fill energy industry jobs.

Finally, some recent legislation is designed to provide benefits to those designated as “essential workers”— including energy workers during periods of emergency. 

For example, the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act (HB 581, enacted May 2021) mandates that employers provide safety protocols and equipment, subject to availability, for essential workers and allow essential workers to take “public health emergency sick leave” if a worker is sick or symptomatic. The public health emergency sick leave is paid leave provided to essential workers in addition to other benefits and earned sick leave provided by the employer.  

New York is considering two pieces of legislation, SB 640 (pending 2021) and SB 519 (pending 2021), which would establish an “essential workers bill of rights” and provide essential workers with hazard pay during states of emergency. The legislation includes “essential infrastructure” and utility workers as part of its definition of “essential workers,” so many workers in the energy industry would be covered under this bill. Under consultation with the state’s commissioner of health, energy employers would be required to provide PPE to workers at no cost to the employee and notify workers of potential exposure to COVID-19. The bills would require employers with revenue of $50 million or more to provide their essential employees with hazard pay (up to $25,000 per employee) and cover costs of childcare or health care related to their employment if the employees were exposed to an “unavoidable, clear and direct risk and hazard to safety and health” as a result of their work assignments. 

Utility Disconnection Moratoriums

About 6 million households per year received energy assistance through HHS’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) before the COVID pandemic. Since the pandemic began, millions more have become eligible for assistance. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey taken in July 2021, over 80 million Americans said they were having a hard time paying bills, including rent and utilities, during the COVID crisis. In some states, particularly across the South, over one-quarter of residents were unable to pay at least one energy bill over the last 12 months.  

State with Utility Moratorium Status map. 

In March 2020, many states took action to suspend utility disconnections for nonpayment to address record unemployment levels caused by the pandemic, which peaked at 14.8% in April 2020. These disconnection moratoriums were established either through legislation, regulatory action or by executive order.  At least 35 states, mostly through executive action but in some cases legislatively, imposed mandatory utility shutoff moratoriums to protect customers. The lengths of these moratoriums varied widely from a couple of months in the case of South Carolina to a certain time after the end of the pandemic, as in Washington, D.C. and New York. Even the 15 states that did not institute mandatory moratoriums had voluntary measures in place that varied by state and utility provider.  

While close to 50% of the U.S. population was covered by either weather- or COVID-based disconnection moratorium through the end of April 2021, by the end of September, only three states— Maryland, New Jersey, and New York—and Washington, D.C., still had active disconnection moratoriums in place. As communities get back up and running amid ongoing uncertainty around COVID-19, the remaining moratoriums are set to expire without action.  

The actions taken by states and utilities to prevent utility disconnections due to economic burdens have been critical to keeping the power on in millions of homes across America during the response to COVID-19. In North Carolina alone, a Public Utilities Commission report noted that between April 1 and June 30, 2020, over 1.3 million residential customer accounts “have become eligible for disconnection but have not been disconnected.” 

State-level moratoriums and assistance is especially important for protecting minority residents and other vulnerable populations. According to the 2009 U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) and a subsequent report from the NAACP, Black households at or below 150% of the federal poverty level had their utilities shut off twice as frequently as similar white households (11.3% compared to 5.5%).

As the pandemic struck, these odds grew significantly higher, according to a University of Indiana study. During the first few months of the pandemic, when most states and utilities had COVID-related disconnection moratoriums in effect, Black and Hispanic households had 3.4- and 3.6-times greater odds, respectively, of having their utility service disconnected relative to their white counterparts. 

State Executive Actions and Utility Cooperation 

Executive and voluntary utility actions have been particularly common to address COVID’s impact on utility customers. Many states relied on executive actions to establish and extend their disaster declarations and related moratoriums.  

At least 11 states allowed utilities to take the lead on issuing shutoff moratoriums, though regulatory approval or guidance may have been required. Arizona, for instance, came to an agreement with the state’s regulated utilities in March 2020 to voluntarily suspend disconnections and penalties, work with customers on repayment plans and made other cooperative commitments to ensure service reliability. Arizona’s actions were replicated by several other states. Arizona’s utilities later voluntarily extended these suspensions through the end of 2020.

In other cases, utilities initiated voluntary moratoriums that later evolved into mandatory measures as it became clear that COVID would become a longer-term challenge. Georgia Power voluntarily suspended disconnections in March 2020, but the state utilities commission issued a mandatory order in April extending this moratorium and suspending late fees until July 14, 2020. While the moratorium expired last year, Georgia Power continued to offer repayment plans through March 2021 with no late fees, allowing many customers to avoid shutoffs.  

Some utilities proactively made commitments to suspend electricity disconnections. For example, all members of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents the majority of U.S. investor-owned utilities, collectively agreed in March of 2020 to voluntarily suspend disconnections regardless of state requirements. The length of these suspensions was not explicitly laid out, however, leaving a patchwork of policies for when each utility would resume normal practices.  

State Legislative Action 

State legislatures have also acted to prevent disconnection of utility services, including expansion of traditional winter moratoriums, to help customers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Alaska took particularly early legislative action to address COVID’s impact on utility customers, which was subsequently used as a model for other state actions. After an emergency declaration was issued by the governor on March 11, 2020, the state legislature immediately began working on a bill to formalize and extend the declaration. The Alaska legislature enacted SB 241 on April 9. In addition to extending the disaster declaration, the bill included a moratorium on utility disconnections for people experiencing COVID-19-related economic hardship and allowed regulated utilities to record uncollected bills as regulatory assets for future rate recovery. The bill protects customers who provide a sworn, signed statement of financial hardship and agree to enter a deferred payment plan negotiated with their utility provider. The length of the payment plans offered by utilities must be at least equal to the length of the emergency. Notably, the bill also placed a moratorium on evictions. 

Most often, these laws only applied during the COVID crisis and for a limited period after disaster declarations are lifted, which is usually dictated by executive order. However, as the pandemic stretched through 2020 and into 2021, at least three other legislatures passed laws to extend their state’s COVID-related moratoriums. The District of Columbia codified and extended its shutoff moratorium in March and May of 2020; this legislative moratorium was later extended by executive action and is now set to expire in October 2021. Virginia’s annual budget, HB 5005, codified its utility shutoff prohibitions until after the end of the emergency. The New York legislature enacted SB 1453 in May 2021 to extend the moratorium until 180 days after the state of emergency is lifted, currently set for Dec. 24.

Meanwhile, the Washington legislature is considering a measure that looks beyond the pandemic. Washington HB 1490 (pending), would prohibit disconnections for low-income or disabled residents year-round, even after the COVID emergency. The law would also extend the state’s annual winter moratorium to apply to rural electric cooperatives, municipal electric utilities and public utility districts; previously the winter moratorium applied only to investor-owned utilities. It would, however, impose some responsibilities on the customer to maintain these protections. The bill references the lifesaving effect of the state’s utility shutoff moratorium during the pandemic. Should it pass, it would be effective immediately.     

Bill Payment Assistance

Collage of energy bills and statements.

Shutoff moratoriums have proven vital for utility customers, even lifesaving as moratoriums on utility shutoffs reduced COVID mortality rates by about 7%. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, deaths could have been reduced by as much as 14.8% if utility shutoff moratoriums had been implemented nationwide. However, these moratoriums do not address the longer-term issue of how to pay for utility charges accrued during the COVID crisis. After shutoff moratoriums end, customers will still be responsible for payments they might have missed over the past year.  

As of December 2020, utilities were carrying around $40 billion in unpaid bills—a figure that doesn’t account for debt accrued during 2021. How states and utilities address this mounting debt will be important for moving past the COVID crisis and could have a significant impact on customer rates in the future. Among the options available are customer bill payment assistance, debt forgiveness, and debt securitization, which would require state legislative or regulatory action. 

The federal government and states have worked to assist customers with bill payments considering these challenges, including via direct financial support, often with income or other eligibility requirements. Other measures assist with repayment by spreading charges over longer terms, capping monthly payments at a certain amount, or even allowing arrearages to be forgiven under certain conditions. 

Federal Assistance

The CARES Act, an early federal response to COVID-19 enacted on March 27, 2020, included $900 million for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The Paycheck Protection Program in the act also helped eligible cooperative and municipal utilities pay some of their expenses during the pandemic. 

In December 2020, Congress provided more relief through the annual appropriations bill, with $25 billion going directly to states for utility and rental assistance. Federal LIHEAP funding also received a $10 million increase over prior year appropriations.  

In March 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, with additional rental and utility assistance plus another $4.5 billion boost to LIHEAP funding. The bill also provided $7.25 billion to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program. States directly received an additional $350 billion in flexible funding, some of which states have allocated for utility bill payment assistance. 

State Assistance

Several states acted to assist residents with utility payments during COVID. Many of these programs offer direct financial assistance to residents to help pay utility bills, with at least five states tapping federal CARES Act funding specifically to meet the demand for utility help. Colorado’s legislature directed $10 million from the CARES Act for utility assistance in June 2020, while governors in states like Kentucky and West Virginia created utility assistance programs using CARES Act funds. Some states also halted the collection of late payment fees to help ease the burden on customers. States like Georgia and Oregon included these measures with their disconnection moratoriums; while Georgia’s expired in July 2020, Oregon has halted late fee collections for residential customers of regulated IOUs until October 2022.  A couple of states, such as New Jersey, extended this policy beyond regulated utilities, suspending late fee collection for all utilities.

•	States with Percentage of Income Payment Plans (PIPPs) for Utility Customers.

Many states have moved to require extended repayment periods to help residents facing COVID-related hardships. Many of these cases require residents to opt into these plans, directing utilities only to offer them and work with customers on repayment options, while a few, like California, automatically enroll customers in extended payments plans if they missed payments during COVID. Some fall in between, requiring utilities to proactively negotiate repayment plans for customers with past-due balances.  

Other extended payment plans may in the future be combined with energy efficiency assistance programs, to both assist with current utility debts and reduce future energy costs for low-income customers. For example, New Mexico’s HB 206 (pending 2021), would require utilities to offer payback plans for up to two years for anyone who missed payments during COVID,  prohibit disconnections during repayment, and allow for possible debt forgiveness. On top of this, the law would create a new community energy efficiency block grant program, funded through the state appropriations process, to increase energy access and reduce future costs for low-income households. 

One other strategy several states used to limit customer utility burdens while also mitigating losses for utilities is the use of Percentage of Income Payment Plans (PIPPs). State regulators can authorize or require regulated utilities to offer PIPPs that cap utility payments for eligible households at a percentage of income, with the balance typically covered by the state or recovered through rate increases.  

While many of these PIPP programs were in place before the pandemic, some have been expanded in response to COVID as policymakers try to blunt the financial effect on residents. Illinois SB 265, for example, expanded PIPP eligibility to families under 60% of the Illinois median income level, regardless of their immigration status. The legislation also encourages the PIPP program to spend at least 80% of its available annual funding and aims to double the 2020 program participation by 2024.

At least two states introduced legislation to create new PIPP programs in the wake of COVID. Virginia enacted HB 2330 in March 2021, which establishes a new PIPP program in the state, with implementing regulations expected in 2022. Rhode Island HB 5809 (pending 2021), would create a tiered PIPP program using funds collected through rate charges on all utility customers.  

While direct financial assistance has helped address COVID-related payment challenges and avoid disconnections in the short-term, extended payment plans, PIPPs and other similar programs may prove to be useful tools moving forward as states try to address longer-term financial challenges for utilities and their customers. 

Combined Utility Assistance and Renter Protections 

Multiple federal and state programs have also been implemented to protect renters during COVID-19. Often focused primarily on eviction protections or rental assistance, some of these programs also offer support to help renters pay their utility bills. At the federal level, the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program provided $25 billion to help households “unable to pay rent and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Funds are provided to states, territories, local governments and tribes to assist with bill payment. Connecticut's  UniteCT program, uses federal relief funds, to provide up to $1,500 in electricity payment assistance for households financially affected by COVID-19 and with incomes at or below 80% of the area median income. Funds are generally paid directly to the landlord or utility. 

Some states also took action to protect renters from landlords trying to circumvent eviction moratoriums. For example, California’s AB 3088, enacted in August 2020, increases civil penalties for landlords who try to force out COVID-affected renters by terminating their utility services. Originally applicable through Feb. 1, 2021, the legislature extended the effective date until July as it became clear the pandemic would continue into the summer. 

Federal eviction protections, which kept roughly 2 million people in their homes during the last year, expired at the end of July and are unlikely to be extended further. As a result, some renters are likely to face mounting challenges paying their bills and keeping the lights on in the months ahead as many state utility shutoff protections also come to an end. 

Conclusion

The response to COVID-19 has affected every facet of modern life, and the energy sector is no exception. Given the vital role energy systems play, policymakers and industry leaders adopted solutions that matched the moment. 

State policymakers acted to ensure critical energy workers could continue delivering essential services and to prevent customers from losing those services due to the sudden financial hardships caused by widespread job losses and the economic downturn. Lawmakers have also pursued legislation to check executive power during emergencies, establishing greater levels of legislative oversight to the emergency powers of governors. 

Many of these policies were reactive, enacted early in the pandemic response to address immediate needs. However, a number of states have begun the process of adopting forward-looking policies aimed at strengthening emergency response capabilities, so states are better equipped to manage the ongoing COVID-19 response, and better prepared for the next disaster in whatever form that takes. 

Additional Resources

Acknowledgment

This webpage was developed under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response under award number DE-OE0000819. NCSL gratefully acknowledges the U.S. Department of Energy’s support in developing this publication.

Disclaimer
This primer was prepared as an account of work sponsored by an agency of the United States Government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof.