Joanna Foster 3 minute read

Too many blackouts: How underserved communities are making utilities listen

Published: Last Updated:

Update Feb. 16, 2024: This story was updated to include the latest wins for communities pushing for cleaner and more reliable and affordable energy.

Cheryl Watson, who submitted testimony in a case about evaluating utility performance, stands in her front yard in Chatham, Illinois
Power outages in neighborhoods like Chatham happen more frequently and last longer than whiter, wealthier neighborhoods, and Cheryl Watson is aiming to fix that. (WBEZ)

Cheryl Watson has lived for 60 years in the same bungalow where she grew up in Chatham, on the south side of Chicago. For most people, losing electricity is an inconvenience, but in an aging, underserved community like Chatham, a power outage can quickly become a crisis.

“Houses around here didn’t need AC when I was growing up, but now climate change means they do,” says Watson. “When we lose power in the summer, it can become a medical emergency for older folks like me.”

Chronic disinvestment in Chatham, where the population is mostly Black and middle and lower-income, compounds these risks. “If there’s even a little rain, the neighborhood floods and you’re trapped, and the nearest decent hospital is miles away,” says Watson.

What’s worse, communities like Chatham are more likely to experience a dangerous power failure.

In Chicago, power outages are 83% more frequent, and last 140% longer, in low-wealth and minority communities compared to whiter, wealthier communities.

These disparities are due in part to older, less reliable electric infrastructure. Neighborhoods without critical facilities like hospitals, and without a growing number of new solar connections, are not prioritized for upgrades.

Plus, members of these underserved communities have historically not been at the table when energy decisions are being made. If they're unable to express their experiences, their concerns cannot be taken into account.

Thanks to Watson and groups like the global nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and Chicago environmental justice organization Blacks in Green, that dynamic is starting to change. 

Public utility commissions call the shots

Utilities are regulated by small, technocratic bodies called public utility commissions. Typically composed of three to five members appointed by the governor, they control what rates utilities can charge, how they distribute costs between residential and industrial customers and what energy infrastructure they can build.

People who submit testimony during a commission’s public hearings are generally engineers, economists, scientists, “or someone else with a lot of letters after their name,” says Christie Hicks, an EDF attorney who’s been working to bring community voices into energy decisions.

There’s no legal reason why a community member can’t testify. But there are a lot of barriers.

“You need an attorney, you have to understand this really nuanced body of law, and make sense of some truly arcane language and procedures,” says Hicks.

Plus, it’s not how things have historically been done at these slow-to-evolve commissions.

Local expertise is key

Hicks started working on a system for collecting and incorporating testimony from community members into public utility legal proceedings, documenting details like the lingering effects of shuttered fossil fuel facilities.

“The goal is to have lived experience in an impacted community recognized as a legitimate form of expertise,” says Hicks.

Homes line a street in the background with a yard flooded in the foreground
Chatham's aging sewer system is no match for the more intense rainfall of a warming climate. (WBEZ)

Working with Hicks and EDF, Watson submitted testimony in a 2022 case about evaluating utility performance. The commission sided with Watson, requiring the utility to clearly show if certain neighborhoods are receiving less reliable service than others.

And the utility will have a portion of its profits tied to equitable performance.

In fall 2023, community testimony from Watson and others helped drive three other big wins for energy consumers. Illinois energy regulators for the first time ordered the state’s largest electric utilities to align their planning with state climate and equity goals. And Illinois gas utilities’ spending requests were slashed by a half billion dollars, making energy more affordable for customers. Utilities were also asked to start considering how to move toward a 100% clean energy future. 

A new website launched by EDF and Blacks in Green, Community Voices in Energy, will help more people across the country get involved in important energy decisions. The website provides resources to help people learn about energy issues in their area, a toolkit to help them get involved and training to help them provide testimony for public utility hearings. The first round of national trainings using these tools will begin in March.

“It all begins with who is at the table when decisions are being made,” says Watson. “If people from frontline communities, who are the keepers of their community's history, are not at the table, then history is destined to be repeated.”

Changing how utilities do business isn’t going to happen overnight, says Hicks, but she is motivated by the community leaders she works with, who are relentless in their push for progress.

“As one of my community members likes to remind me,” says Hicks, “it ain’t over till we win.”

Hope for a warming planet

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