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Why Energy Poverty is an Environmental Issue

Historically, when we use the term environmental issue in South Carolina, we usually think about endangered species, offshore drilling, or land conservation. But, that’s not the only environment most of us actually live in. What about the environment most underserved, under-resourced communities are forced to live in? The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed hidden environmental challenges and injustices that force us to answer this question. Even more, what this pandemic has largely uncovered are the parallels between the economy and the environment.

Don’t misunderstand. Protecting our state’s wildlife and preserving our shores are extremely important. In fact, I believe those environmental issues are important to most South Carolinians – including low wealth communities. Now, I know there is the argument that low wealth or middle wealth communities do not necessarily care about these issues when there is always the looming fear of not being able to pay the bills. I actually struggle with this argument because as a former classroom teacher and educator who has worked mostly in Title I funded schools, I have seen where children and their families are very passionate about those mainstream environmental issues. But, because of their lived experiences, they are also pressed to care about flooding in their neighborhoods, access to healthcare, toxic waste that causes poor air and water quality, access to high quality education, nutrition insecurity, housing insecurity, and yes –energy insecurity.

If you take this holistic, cumulative view of what many low income and middle income communities make allowances for to ensure their survival, you will discover that energy is the essential resource that is rationed first. This is a grave reality for so many South Carolinians who do not have the privilege to separate deforestation and climate change from paying the power bill. Many South Carolina residents do not have the privilege to isolate natural resource depletion and coral reef loss from keeping running water in their home.

This conundrum ushers in the term energy poverty. Energy Poverty is when low wealth and middle wealth communities are forced to make unbearable choices like choosing between paying for medicine or keeping the lights on – between putting food on the table or running the air conditioner during the hottest months of the summer – between paying rent or maintaining running water in the home. These choices prompt very dangerous decisions one must always consider when living with income uncertainty, and I say always because poverty is the constant state of having to make difficult, recurrent, and sometimes unhealthy choices.

This truth is why educating South Carolinians about the South Carolina Public Service Commission is so important. The Public Service Commission holds so much power over crucial decisions as it relates to energy. The Commission decides if our state should build or update a power facility or to even invest in solar energy – improving the output of carbon emissions; but, it also decides the rates we are charged for the energy we use.

So, with our partners, we have launched a campaign that addresses the crisis of energy poverty – which has only worsened since the pandemic. South Carolina Connected in Crisis is a public awareness campaign that is devoted to ensuring all South Carolinians understand the role of the South Carolina Public Service Commission. In essence, it is an education undertaking that empowers ordinary people to impact Public Service Commission decisions – particularly during COVID-19.

As you can see, energy poverty is unequivocally an environmental issue because it is a human issue. If we really care about leaving a healthy and safe South Carolina for the next generation, we must also take into account that for so many South Carolinians, survival is not only about devoutly caring for our state’s wildlife and protecting our beautiful ocean shores, it is also about keeping the lights on.

Join the movement by calling for a moratorium on utility disconnects during the pandemic and for South Carolina to address energy poverty! Take action today!

– Deitra Matthews



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