AZ Heat Deaths 0709

Heat-related deaths in Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, have risen sharply in recent years, with Native American and Black populations seeing a greater impact than other groups.

Arizona regulators are contending with rising temperatures and an increase in heat-related deaths, including two this year that occurred after electric service was disconnected during hot weather, as a two-year effort to establish rules prohibiting utilities from disconnecting power during extreme weather events continues.

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner on May 14 reported the death of a man who reportedly resided in a "makeshift shed" on someone else's property and was found decomposing three days after electric service had been disconnected during abnormally high temperatures.

Arizona Public Service in correspondence with the Arizona Corporation Commission confirmed that a location possibly connected with the death is in the utility's service territory and that service had been disconnected at that address on May 10, a day in which the recorded high temperature for Phoenix was 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Emergency rules prohibiting disconnection in Arizona went into effect June 1.

The dead man, whose name was redacted from the medical examiner's report, was not the APS customer of record for that address, the utility said. The medical examiner listed hypertensive cardiovascular disease as the cause of the accidental death, with "exposure to elevated environmental temperatures after electrical service disconnection" as a contributor.

On May 13, UNS Electric disconnected an address in Kingman for nonpayment. UNSE restored service on June 18, a day when the recorded high temperature reached 111 F, after being informed that its customers on that account were in the hospital suffering from heatstroke. One of those customers reportedly died June 18, the same day UNSE restored power after being requested to do so in order for the customers to return home safely.

The utilities provided the information to the ACC following a request from Chairwoman Lea Márquez Peterson regarding 2021 indoor heat-related deaths in their service territories that involved a lack of access to or a decision not to use air conditioning [RU-00000A-19-0132].

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health on June 1 reported a record-high 323 heat-related deaths in 2020 in its annual heat report, a 62-percent increase over 2019 and the highest number recorded since heat surveillance began in 2001. About 15 percent of those deaths occurred indoors, the department said. Of those who passed away indoors, 82 percent had an air conditioner present, but about two-thirds of those air conditioners were not functioning.

Indoor heat deaths have been more numerous in areas of the county with high rates of poverty and high numbers of nonwhite residents, according to the MCDPH. "With a large percentage of the population living in poverty as well as language possibly being a barrier, it is easy to see why indoor heat deaths occur with limited resources to get air conditioners fixed," the department said.

The ACC's proposed rules would allow regulated utilities to choose between either a temperature-based threshold of above 95 or below 32 F versus a calendar-based moratorium on disconnections that would run from June 1 to Oct. 15.

The commission on June 28 and July 1 held public comment sessions regarding the proposed rules, which were published May 21 as a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Arizona Administrative Register. Commenters, most of whom represented activist or public advocacy organizations, opined on whether utilities should have a choice on how to impose a weather-related shutoff moratorium. Several suggested that a 90-degree threshold would save more lives than the proposed 95-degree threshold.

The poorly attended sessions prompted ACC member Sandra Kennedy to suggest in a filing that the commission hold an additional session on a Saturday or during the evening. "The Commission must do all it can to raise public awareness and encourage as much public participation as possible with regard to this life and death issue," Kennedy said. "There comes a point where I must raise the question, does the Commission not want the public to participate?"

ACC spokesman Nick Debus confirmed in a telephone call that the commission will not hold another public comment session. The written comment period closed June 28, according to the rules, which will go before the commission for discussion, possible amendment and vote by the end of this year. Emergency rules adopted by the commission in 2019 remain in effect through Oct. 15.

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Associate Editor - California Energy Markets

Abigail Sawyer grew up in northwestern New Mexico near two massive coal-fired power plants. She spent many hours gazing out the car window at transmission lines on family road trips across the Southwest and now reports on the region from San Francisco.