July’s record-breaking heat may now seem distant, but it is the new normal. As a result, every year we are seeing more heat-related deaths than the year before. Yet according to a recent Washington Post editorial, 31 states – including Maine – still allow utilities to shut off electricity for nonpayment during a heat wave.

Maine should leave this club as soon as possible.

It took fatalities for some states to act. The 2021 heat wave in Washington state – just as northern as Maine – killed 157 people. Too late, these deaths led to a new state law this year. Similarly, Arizona passed a law only after a 72-year old woman, only a few dollars behind on her bill, was killed due to extreme heat and an overzealous utility shutoff.

The question is not whether it will happen here, but when. We’re setting new heat records constantly, and we are not accustomed to heat.

This past week alone, excessive heat warnings were in effect for portions of 16 states, including northern areas like Omaha and Minneapolis. Heat indexes when we wrote this were expected to rise to between 110 and 130 degrees.

Making matters far worse, Maine also has far more low-income elderly residents than most states, and we pay some of the highest electricity rates.


How high? By one measure, Maine’s electricity rates are now the fifth-highest in the U.S., with rates even higher than those of Massachusetts. And many Mainers are clearly struggling to keep up. Between April and July, Central Maine Power and Versant sent out a record number of disconnection notices, reportedly threatening more than one in eight customers with a shutoff.

Between record-high heat and record-high bills, more Mainers are at risk than ever.

That said, bills are not high for our mainland consumer-owned utilities, where the Public Utilities Commission reports rates that are less than half of CMP and Versant’s. And to be fair, not all of this difference comes down to CMP and Versant. But by voting for Pine Tree Power this fall, we can save customers an estimated $367 a month from year one – making it easier for all Mainers to keep up with their bills.

We already ban shutoffs during the colder months. In fact, Maine’s power utilities are barred from shutting off customers as a collection practice from Nov. 15 to April 15. But even in our northern climate, heat is becoming more deadly than cold.

That said, a ban alone is not enough. Robust penalties and enforcement are also needed. Eager debt collectors working for CMP have been fined by the PUC for issuing improper disconnection notices during the winter period. Similarly, CMP’s affiliate in Connecticut has also been fined for garnishing wages to collect past due amounts in violation of state law. A bill here in Maine could also help encourage legislators to follow our lead.

Maine’s utilities are far from alone in this practice. In fact, utility companies have disconnected U.S. households more than 5.7 million times since 2020 while shelling out billions to shareholders and top executives, according to “Powerless in the U.S.,” a new report from the Energy and Policy Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and BailoutWatch.

The report notes: “The harm is real and self-evident, as are the solutions. Yet utility companies are still depriving U.S. households of power and heat millions of times a year while returning billions to their shareholders and executives …

“Disconnections foster instability: Without power, people struggle to maintain employment, keep their kids in school, and even stay alive. This is doubly true for the largely poor communities of color that are most vulnerable to inadequate housing and climate-driven weather extremes … By giving utility companies the power to penalize poverty, we license them to perpetuate it.”

As we continue to set new global heat records, even in Maine, it is time to add a clear, well-enforced ban on power disconnections during heat waves. Heat kills, and no Mainer should lose power to their AC unit, heat pump, water pump, refrigerated medication or oxygen machine when they need it most.

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