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Affordable energy needed during pandemic, summer heat wave

Electricity Pylon against clear sky

As the coronavirus continues to upend the country, Americans are facing unique challenges. Millions are out of work and struggling to make ends meet. If that isn’t bad enough, electricity bills are also rising during peak summer demand. That means staying cool has suddenly become an unaffordable luxury for many.

Plenty of Americans don’t worry about paying for electricity, though. But back in 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that one in three U.S. households was struggling to pay for monthly energy bills. Now, in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to hammer the U.S. economy, the everyday challenge of paying for lighting, refrigeration, and air-conditioning has suddenly become a more widespread problem.

If that seems hard to imagine, National Public Radio just reported exactly this scenario. Families that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus — particularly those that have lost jobs — are now facing difficult, unexpected choices on where to spend their money. Do they pay for air conditioning or groceries? Or, do they spend limited income on prescription medications and other medical needs?

Matthew Kandrach

Matthew Kandrach

This mirrors recent polling by Morning Consult that found nearly half of Americans saying the current pandemic has left them worrying more about paying for household bills, including electricity.

Complicating things is that electricity prices are becoming more volatile. Twenty-nine states have adopted renewable energy standards that mandate a costly transition toward more expensive forms of electricity. That’s putting an added burden on working families.

Americans aren’t happy about this. The same polling by Morning Consult also revealed that 56% of voters say they’re unwilling to pay more for electricity in order to support a pivot away from traditional sources of power, even though such policies are being pushed in Washington and on the campaign trail.

Some states are managing to hold the line on energy prices, since they’ve taken a measured approach to energy transition that favors a more balanced electricity mix. In fact, states that haven’t rushed to retire or replace reliable coal plants still have some of the least expensive retail electricity. But electricity prices in New England and California, for example, are twice what they are in Indiana or Kentucky.

These are not ordinary times, and elected officials must take stock. While there’s still time, policymakers should recognize the need for affordable electricity. As summer heat simmers across the country, and with so many at home and unemployed, it’s imperative to keep families safe and healthy. It’s time to reappraise the crucial importance of reliable, affordable base-load power — particularly from modern U.S. coal plants — and refocus energy policy on affordability as the top energy concern for consumers.

Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.

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