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There Could Be an Energy Bill Debt Tsunami, Too

Unpaid utility bills have been piling up since the coronavirus crisis began, prompting fears that winter shutoffs of water, power, and heat could worsen Covid’s toll. 

Big chill: Many U.S. households have been struggling to keep up with heating bills during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Big chill: Many U.S. households have been struggling to keep up with heating bills during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe

When the pandemic hit in March, as millions lost jobs and struggled to pay their bills, 34 states ordered mandatory moratoriums on utility shutoffs — measures that were all more critical as families were asked to stay home. The lockdowns translated into higher utility bills: One economist estimated that residential electricity use spiked 10% on average between April and July 2020, leading to households spending nearly $6 billion on extra usage. Another home energy monitoring company reported that April demand increased 22% from 2019.

Yet despite the need never dissipating, most states eventually lifted their utility shutoff moratoriums; by the end of October, just 16 states and Washington, D.C., had active moratoriums in place, covering 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. Other states regularly halt utility shutoffs in winter, or when the temperature reaches a particularly cold level. NEADA estimates that 13 states are now relying primarily on these annual seasonal respites.