Mandatory Fees: Utilities Fight the Future at the Expense of Our Civil Rights

November 5, 2015

Utilities are pushing for mandatory fee increases in 22 states, with new proposals expected in six additional states within the next 12 months. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s part of a concerted effort to push back against a healthier, greener economy that can provide good jobs for our communities.

The NAACP stands with like-missioned organizations opposing attempts by utilities around the country to increase their mandatory monthly “fixed” fees. In fact, the NAACP has been instrumental in the fight against these predatory fees in several of these states including Indiana and Kansas.

So how does something as seemingly obscure as mandatory fee increases fit into NAACP’s civil rights agenda? Well, they often force higher costs disproportionately onto people who use the least electricity and can least afford higher bills. That means they disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. They also remove incentives to conserve energy and result in consumers losing control over their energy costs and options. This has a direct impact on communities throughout the country who are trying to save money and lower monthly energy bills through weatherization and simple energy efficiency upgrades.

Bearing this in mind, in the wake of President Obama’s newly-minted Clean Power Plan, we’ve heard a host of disingenuous arguments from the fossil fuel industry about how efforts to rein in carbon emissions are bad for communities of color.  If you take a look at the map above, you might ask yourself: since when has the fossil fuel industry cared about the costs imposed on our communities? Certainly not in 2008 when there were record high rates of electricity shut-offs, which disproportionately impacted communities of color.

On the map, one can see that there is a battle pushing for mandatory fee increases being waged throughout nearly half of the country, much like the way ALEC is crafting legislation to be fitted into state law books everywhere aimed at thwarting distributed generation (our ability to generate our own electricity from solar panels or otherwise get energy credits/rebates).

As Richard Mabion, President of the NAACP Kansas City Branch which is engaged in the fight against these fee increases, recently pointed out another awful side effect of this policy is that “Elderly residents living on a fixed income who use very little energy will pay the same as people with large homes that use dramatically more energy.”

The nationwide effort to install higher mandatory fees represents a brewing fight over who should pay for the transition to a clean environment. On the one hand, our communities are already paying for the status quo as we are more likely to live in communities polluted with toxins– and we are paying it with our lives. On the other hand, we have utility companies that profit from using the cheapest (for them) and most profitable (for them) methods of generating energy and have little interest in shepherding in a new economic order predicated on clean energy.

Mandatory fees take away our agency to determine our own energy use and, therefore, what we pay. Thus, this policy disincentivizes reducing energy use during peak demand, thus straining current infrastructure. These fees structurally discourage conservation while also inhibiting the innovation we need for the development of a future powered by clean energy. By interfering with market indicators that would naturally stimulate greater use of solar power, an opportunity to improve the health of our communities, mandatory fees forestall the opportunity to diminish line loss and increase efficiency of transmission within the current infrastructure.

So there’s a lot at stake in these fights and they are a symptom of a broader trend in our country. With big money (including Big Coal) funding nationwide pushes against policies that would increase energy efficiency and strengthen local renewable portfolio standards, we need to be aware of all of the battlegrounds.

Key battlegrounds rarely mentioned are the meetings of utility commissions in which the decisions on mandatory fees are handed down. It should be pointed out that these commissions are disproportionately comprised of higher income White American males as detailed in another blog of ours – many of whom have ties to industry.

We need to stand united against these mandatory fees because they are a part of an insidious trend in shifting the economic and health burden of the fossil fuel economy onto vulnerable populations. Issues like mandatory fees perfectly illustrate the hypocritical nature of the fossil fuel-linked organizations’ newly-found interest in the well-being of communities of color and low income communities.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to engage productively with your public utility in a conversation about these fees and the rightful place of renewables in your area’s energy future, we have some tools for you.

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