When the coronavirus pandemic began this past spring, University of Chicago Law School scholars and students had already spent months battling Detroit’s electricity provider over a proposed rate increase. In the face of COVID-19, already pressing concerns about energy affordability suddenly took on a heightened urgency—and the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic quickly switched gears.
“We were advocating for low-income consumers, highlighting how these individuals already suffer from energy insecurity, and how utility bills are often a much larger percentage of their income,” said Clinical Prof. Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Clinic. “And once COVID-19 hit, we talked about how the pandemic was adding some serious additional challenges.”
The Abrams Clinic first got involved in the case through their client Soulardarity, a Detroit-area nonprofit that advocates for affordable energy rates, equitable service and increased solar-powered energy in low-income neighborhoods. When southeastern Michigan energy company DTE proposed a rate increase before the Michigan Public Service Commission—which regulates investor-owned utilities—Soulardarity was one of many parties to oppose the move.
That opposition took on increased importance as the virus spread and stay-at-home orders took effect—and the Abrams Clinic began focusing on the ways in which higher electricity bills could create additional harms.
“A lot of people were laid off or furloughed because of the virus,” said Templeton, an expert on environmental law and energy policy. “As a result, they might not have the income to afford their energy bills. And for those people who are able to shift their work to home, they might be using more electricity, which would also significantly affect their budget.”
Lower-income neighborhoods are also more likely to experience power outages, dangerous downed power lines and other energy issues that create additional strain during a crisis like COVID-19, Templeton and his students said.
“If a family is already struggling with food insecurity, and their electricity shuts off and they lose everything in their freezer, that can be detrimental,” said Camille Sippel, a rising third-year student in the clinic who worked on the rate case. “Another example would be if someone is receiving at-home medical care, using a machine, and their electricity goes off—the last thing you want is to send an immunocompromised person to the hospital during a pandemic.”