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COVID-19 and Energy Justice: Utility Bill Relief in Virginia


Energy justice has captured national attention as scholars have spotlighted inequities in energy production and distribution activities, energy and utility regulation, and the clean energy transition. Within this broader context, this Article reflects on the successes and setbacks for the movement toward energy justice through a case study focusing on legislative, executive, and regulatory attempts between 2020 and 2022 to provide relief for Virginia utility customers harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Article begins by defining the problem of energy insecurity and demonstrating that the pandemic exacerbated existing energy insecurity for vulnerable citizens of Virginia. It then traces the efforts over this two-year period of the General Assembly, Governor Northam and the Virginia State Corporation Commission to address the challenge, through temporary moratoria on utility bill payments and other means, including proposals to provide direct relief to utility customers and more sweeping proposals to reform Virginia’s public utility law to comprehensively address energy insecurity concerns. Ultimately, even though only modest relief was made available, advocates could also claim success with the enactment of a new state law that adopted and subsequently modified a new Percentage of Income Payment Program that is to be further refined and implemented by agency actions. Looking more broadly at these actions, one may draw encouragement from the fact that issues of energy insecurity have featured more prominently than ever before in Virginia’s energy policymaking discussions and that activists at all levels have created advocacy networks that may prove durable in the long run. Still, the Article concludes, much more remains to be done to address energy justice during the upcoming multi-decade clean energy transition put in motion by the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

Joel B Eisen *

* Professor ofLaw, University of Richmond School of Law.