Electricity is a big part of our lives. We use it to heat and cool our homes, store and cook our food, and run our businesses. Electricity is vital to our health, safety and financial wellbeing.
That’s why advocacy groups, including now the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), are calling for access to electricity to be classified as a human right.
The report, issued in March 2017 and entitled Lights Out in the Cold: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as If Human Rights Matter, urges legislators to amend the legal definition of the phrase to include access to electricity as a human right and account for issues such as racial discrimination, poverty and climate change.
The NAACP called on states to implement rules prohibiting shutoff during times of extreme temperatures, protections for those who use electricity to operate vital medical devices, programs to assist customers struggling to pay their bills, and programs to assist with energy-efficiency improvements. The group also advocated for more clean and distributed power generation.
According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), households at or below 150 percent of the poverty level and headed by African Americans were twice as likely to have their power shut off as households at the same poverty level headed by white Americans.
These problems will disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities. As electricity bills rise due to an increased demand for heating and cooling, families will find they need to spend a larger chunk of their income on electricity. Poor communities will struggle to rebuild after extreme weather events.
In poorer areas of cities, temperatures tend to be higher to begin with. This isn’t just an electricity affordability issue; other factors play a part, such as fewer trees to provide shade and buildings that are constructed of heat-trapping materials. Furthermore, residents of these communities are more likely to work outside in the elements during the day. If they come home to hot apartments that they can’t afford to cool with air conditioning, they are more likely to suffer from heat-related health problems.
Businesses, too, have begun to take steps to improve access to electricity. Grid Alternatives, a California-based nonprofit organization, works to provide and install rooftop solar panels for low-income households. And Schneider Electric is installing solar panels in Kenya that provide off-grid power.
Solar technology can be expensive to install, but once it’s up and running, it can lower the cost of utility bills. Apart from finding alternative energy solutions, property management companies, such as PMI, work with affordable properties participating in government programs to help lower-income families find affordable rent and utility rates.
Electricity is central to our daily lives. It’s hard for some of us to imagine living without it. And the NAACP and other human rights organizations say no one should. Access to electricity is not defined as a human right in the United States today. But declaring it as such would likely help keep disadvantaged communities safer and healthier and would help them achieve more financial security.
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