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Symptomatic for Energy Insecurity

A few days ago, I received an email from a mother of four — including a newborn. The screenshot attached to her message was a copy of her electric bill and a note asking for help. The reality of that mother is not only common in Fairfield County but is more like the status quo for the quality of life here.

One might be surprised by the distinct parallels between parts of rural America like Fairfield County and some developing nations around the world. Children in South Carolina attend school and go home to no electricity, plastic covered windows or inadequate heating and water systems. In the 90s, I was one of those children.

Not much has changed for low-wage earners and the working class over the past few decades in our country. The wealth gap that left 40% of most Americans with empty bank accounts for the past two Years has been met with a global pandemic, leaving rural households like ours bleeding out for the majority of 2020. Of the 23% of Fairfield County residents living in poverty, more than 1,400 are children. While some schools consider cutting back in-person learning for students due to Covid, families in Winnsboro are faced with the decision to cut back on expenses like internet service, buying food or paying the electric bill.

“Energy insecurity” is a phrase commonly used by policy professionals. It means nothing to average South Carolinians, yet its implications challenge, frustrate and endanger the lives of our family and neighbors across the state. When we’re energy insecure, we’re living below the standard and quality of life that is a privilege to many.

If we liken energy insecurity to Covid, we’ll see they have a lot in common.

They both have symptoms: Covid sufferers often display a dry cough, loss of taste/sense of smell and a fever. Those who are along the spectrum of energy insecurity are often unable to pay their utility bills, try to preserve energy use by keeping their homes warmer in the summer and colder in the winter and don’t take part in small pleasures like putting up Christmas lights outside of their homes.

Covid and energy insecurity also both disproportionately affect different communities: Covid more deeply affects those with pre-existing conditions or immunodeficiency. Energy insecurity more deeply affects those with lower and/or volatile household incomes — and even those now affected by Covid itself.

Since the start of the pandemic, one-third (33%) of South Carolina voters have had trouble paying their bills, and more than seven in 10 (72%) of those say the pandemic has made it harder to pay their bills. (Source: Climate Nexus Poll)

People of Fairfield County are not unlike those in other South Carolina counties. Energy insecurity affects people of all backgrounds across county lines.

The South Carolina Connected in Crisis effort was created in response to Covid and aims to raise awareness for energy insecurity and the ways we can address it in our state. In highlighting the role of the South Carolina Public Service Commission, we can educate people about how decisions concerning energy in our state are made — and by whom.

One of the primary tactics of their work is to collect stories of how challenges with energy and utility providers affects the everyday lives of South Carolina residents. If you’re like me and have spent decades either seeing firsthand or hearing from others how energy insecurity has affected people’s lives, I hope you’ll join me by sharing stories with South Carolina Connected in Crisis via their website.

No child in Winnsboro said they wanted to be in the lowest income class when they grew up. While we can’t fix every problem with a snap of our fingers, we can address energy insecurity as we raise awareness, educate our communities and make sure those in positions of power understand the implications of decisions they make concerning South Carolina residents and their homes.

– Nocola Hemphill, Guest Blogger

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