Sky-High Electricity Is Biden’s New Pain Point Before Elections

(Bloomberg) -- For months now, high gasoline prices have been arguably the most visible political pain point for President Joe Biden. In most towns, they can be seen every few blocks on signs at filling stations. It’s the fundamental commodity Americans need to go to work, buy groceries and get around.

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But in the runup to the US midterm elections, another energy cost is coming into focus: skyrocketing electricity bills.

It’s a topic that led off a recent gubernatorial debate in California, home to some of the nation’s priciest power. In Maine, politicians have clashed over whether renewable energy is making electricity more expensive. In New York, the Republican candidate for governor is urging the state to reverse its ban on natural gas drilling to lower utility bills.

Electricity costs are already a key topic around kitchen tables, with one in six households falling behind on payments as budgets are stretched thin by rising prices for everything from food to housing. And on the cusp of elections that will decide which party controls the House and Senate, soaring utility bills are also emerging as a potent threat to the Biden administration and the transition to cleaner energy.

Tom Content, executive director of Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, an energy-advocacy group, is trying to channel ratepayers’ frustration into citizen engagement.

“People are fed up,” Content said.

In Europe, countries including the UK and Germany are offering utility-bill subsidies and officials have been forced to explain to outraged consumers how they plan to shield people from costs that have become unaffordable. Rising power costs in the region have voters taking to the streets in protest and pledging to boycott payments.

Though American lawmakers haven’t proposed measures on par with Europe’s interventions, that could change, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of National Energy Assistance Directors Association. Because US polling firms don’t ask specifically about electricity prices, it’s difficult to gauge how important they are to voters relative to other issues.

“We’re not there yet, but we could be,” Wolfe said. “There’s no reason it can’t happen here.”

More than 20 million US households are delinquent on their utility bills, a sign of a looming crisis as electricity becomes more expensive, Wolfe said.

Electricity has long taken a back seat in US political discussions to gasoline. To explain why, consider this: The power bill only arrives once a month. Sometimes it doesn’t arrive at all, if it’s paid by automatic withdrawal from a checking account or debit card. But the sharp increases in electricity costs—16% in the 12 months through September—have become impossible to ignore.

“It’s something every household has to face,” said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst for Glenrock Associates.

Some of the most dramatic price gains are happening in states that will play a crucial role in the midterm elections. In Wisconsin, a swing state, regulators are likely to approve a rate increase for residential power of about 14% that would take effect in January, Content said. That would be on top of increased gas rates consumers are already paying for home heating.

The looming price hike is going to be a problem for Maria Beltran, 50, a Milwaukee grandmother who lives on a fixed income. Her monthly electricity bill has doubled to about $71 in the past year, representing about 5% of her monthly income. Beltran spends as many as five days a week as a volunteer community organizer, trying to boost awareness among her neighbors about energy issues and other challenges. She’s keen to see elected officials make utility prices a bigger part of their platform.

“I want energy that’s affordable for me,” she said. “I’ll vote for whoever I truly believe will make a change.”

Her concerns are echoing around the country as utility bills climbed over the past year. Snarled supply chains amid the pandemic have triggered international shortages of power-plant fuels, a trend exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All of that translates to electricity prices that have left many US ratepayers unable to pay their bills.

“Rising prices in general are an issue for voters for this midterm election, whether it is related to utility bills or higher gas prices,” said Mark Baldassare, chief executive officer and polling expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank.

Supply-chain issues and concerns about reliability are already slowing the shift to greener energy. As many as 40 US coal-fired power plants that were slated to shut will now run for longer than expected, according to Andrew Blumenfeld, director of data analytics at McCloskey by Opis. And if voter frustration with high power bills propels more pro-fossil-fuel candidates to victory, renewable energy projects risk ending up on the backburner.

Republican lawmakers aren’t immune to the backlash against rising utility bills, however. In Texas, which has long been a reliably red state, electricity is already a big part of the political discussion after a winter storm in 2021 knocked out power for days. Higher costs are making the issue even more pressing for Robert Dye, 71, a Dallas retiree.

He’s now paying more for electricity than he spends on gasoline for his two cars after his power bill doubled in the past year, and the lifelong Republican has already cast his vote in the current cycle, for Democrats at the state level.

“In previous elections, you just grin and bear it because you are going to have to pay it anyway,” he said. “But we had this little disaster thrown in our faces and it has brought that issue forward. That’s influencing how I vote.”

--With assistance from Angel Adegbesan.

(Updates with delinquency figures in 10th paragraph.)

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