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Pandemic Spotlights Opportunities for Utility Equity in Colorado


Wednesday, May 12, 2021   

DENVER -- The number of Coloradans who need help to keep the power on in their homes rose dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic, and energy experts say lessons learned could help utility companies, policymakers and government agencies address longstanding inequities.

Jennifer Gremmert, executive director of Energy Outreach Colorado, said COVID-19 put a spotlight on the economic fragility of communities of color and low-income families, including front-line workers praised for their efforts in hospitals and grocery stores.

"And what we saw as a result of the pandemic was that so many people were really living on the edge, that were one crisis away from not being able to afford their energy bills," Gremmert recounted. "We also saw a disproportionate amount of minorities that needed this assistance."

When thousands lost jobs, or were forced to leave the workforce to care for children when schools closed, many families had to make difficult decisions.

Gremmert noted her group's toll-free assistance hotline received more than 250,000 calls for assistance during the past year. The group paid more than 25,000 past-due utility bills, a 46% increase over the previous year.

Gremmert emphasized we're not out of the dark yet, pointing to the Great Recession, from which it took years for low-wage workers to recover.

Even before the pandemic, one in four Colorado households struggled to pay their energy bills, and Gremmert argued now is the time to make systemic changes.

She suggested steps should be taken by utility companies, lawmakers, government agencies and nonprofits to ensure families most at risk can access payment assistance, and replace broken furnaces and ceiling fans.

"But also just a fundamental belief that we have to help our neighbors in need," Gremmert urged. "And it may not be for a long period of time, but it's to make sure that they can be healthy participants in our communities."

Gremmert pointed out removing barriers, including bureaucratic red tape, will help more people from getting their power cut off.

Next, she stressed investments in energy efficiency for low-income housing units can help lower monthly utility bills. She added new energy policies, as the nation shifts away from climate-polluting sources, need to include the state's most vulnerable families.

Disclosure: Energy Outreach Colorado contributes to our fund for reporting on Energy Policy, and Housing/Homelessness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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