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The Utility of Justice

As the U.S. - and beyond - has more actively engaged in debate and discussion on race, racism, inequality and justice, AIQUEOUS has begun to proactively consider not only what responsibilities we as a company have and should act upon but also the particular role that energy or water utilities play in the Black community across the United States - especially in terms of customer engagement and equality. While the relationship between a utility and its customers may for many, seem cut and dry, there are in fact utility policies and positions that need to be considered within this context.

For example, in a New Yorker interview with Opal Tometi, one of the Co-Founders of Black Lives Matter, Ms. Tometi called out utility policies specifically in the scope of advocacy for the Movement for Black Lives:

We do a lot of work with the Movement for Black Lives and a number of organizations and individuals and different leaders who are part of that formation, and we have been calling for the defunding of police, a moratorium on rent, a moratorium on mortgages and utilities. We need to not have people’s utilities shut off—their light, their water, and just basic needs that people have.

It may come as a surprise to see utilities highlighted this way, however, the subject of utility disconnects has been on the agenda for the black community for a number of years. In 2017, the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program issued a report - Lights Out in the Cold - demonstrating that while all utilities are required to send out disconnect notices:

  • 7 states offer no payment plans to cure delinquency;

  • 8 states have no medical protection policies on affecting disconnection of services;

  • 11 states have no disconnection limitation policies;

  • 14 states have no date-based protection policies. Date based – set specific dates of when customers cannot without due diligence be disconnected from a utility service;

  • 28 states have no temperature-based policies: Meaning regardless of how cold it becomes, utilities can be shut-off;

  • 11 states have no disconnection limitations; and

  • 36 states have re-connection fees.

Additionally, Lights Out in the Cold recommended specific policies that utilities could promote and pursue in their service territories:

  • Secure ACCESS to utility services for all households;

  • INCLUSION of all customers in the development of utility policies and regulations;

  • TRANSPARENCY of the actions of and information held by utility companies, regulating bodies; legislatures, and utility affiliated organizations;

  • PROTECTION of the human and civil rights of all customers; and

  • Advance programs that help ELIMINATE POVERTY, so that all customers can pay utility bills.

Within the past few weeks many utilities - at least 21 as reported by ESOURCE- have made public statements in support of Black Lives Matter. While these public pronouncements are an important step forward, the customer experience of Black communities across North America merits more. And as articulated in this article by BBC World Service, customers will indeed look beyond these public statements to examine the composition and diversity of company Boards and the workforce, company hiring practices, the company’s track record within the community, and where companies invest. For those utilities that have already made significant advances in these areas, it will be valuable to make this progress visible and serve as models for utilities elsewhere.

Internally at AIQUEOUS, both as individuals and as a company, we have taken what are at least the initial steps to build relationships with, understand how we can facilitate job creation for, and become better advocates regarding policies that support Austin’s Black community.

Externally, and as always, AIQUEOUS’ ongoing mission remains to amplify the positive impact our Utility clients have in their communities. It is abundantly clear by now that one of these impacts include a Utilities’ particular ability to help address and rectify aspects of the socio-economic issues our nation continues to face - and we look forward to being continued partners in that endeavor.

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