HARTFORD, Connecticut — More than 322,000 state households cannot pay their utility bills by a margin of nearly $400 million, according to a study released December 6 by Operation Fuel.
The study showed that about 9,000 more households than last year’s 313,000 can’t afford their energy bills this year.
The energy affordability gap – the portion of energy bills that residents cannot pay – decreased from $1,506 last year to $1,241 this year, according to Operation Fuel.
This drop is primarily attributed to a reduction in the price of home heating oil and natural gas over the past year, the report stated.
“Even though energy prices were lower this past year, there still is a significant gap between what lower-income households pay for energy bills and what they actually can afford to pay,” Operation Fuel Executive Director Karen E. Adamson said. “And when low-income households do pay their bills in full and on time, it is frequently at the expense of other basic necessities such as nutritious food, healthcare and education.”
According to the report, many of the affected households consist of working families with young children or elderly adults living on fixed-income.
The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is the state’s main source for energy assistance. However, the report showed that this past year the program covered $85 million – just 21 percent – of the statewide affordability gap.
Regional economist Roger D. Colton, a partner with Fisher, Sheehan & Colton Public Finance and General Economics of Belmont, Massachusetts, prepared the report for Operation Fuel.
Colton said that Connecticut’s resources are “grossly insufficient” to address the energy affordability gap issue.
“The State of Connecticut has a large home energy affordability gap facing its low-income households,” he said. “As a result of this mismatch between energy bills and the resources needed to pay them, low-income households incur unpaid bills and experience the termination of service associated with those arrears.”
Adamson said this problem affects more than just a few areas.
“This is in every single district, every community,” she said. “There are people that just can’t afford the cost of their basic needs.”
The report found that energy efficiency in multi-family housing units, where more than 400,000 Connecticut residents live and most of whom are renters, could be improved by about 30 percent.
Adamson said that the federal Weatherization Assistance Program is highly effective in helping people cut back on energy consumption.
“We can’t really control what the utilities are going to charge,” she said. “But if you can reduce your own consumption by weatherizing your house, it’s a way as a resident or a renter to lower your cost.”
Making the program more accessible to renters is more of a challenge since landlords are not always interested in signing the necessary forms, Adamson said.
“We’re looking at how to do better at reaching landlords to encourage them to make those kinds of improvements,” she said. “Especially in multi-family houses. It makes a difference for both the landlord and the renter.”
Adamson said Operation Fuel could potentially model programs in states like Massachusetts or New Jersey, where utilities are charged in proportion to each household’s income.
“I don’t see something happening really soon, but it’s something that we keep wanting to talk about and consider,” she said.
For everyday people looking to make a difference, Adamson said they can add an extra dollar to their own utility bill to go toward that of low-income households.
“One dollar seems small,” she said. “But it gives you the opportunity to help neighbors who are really struggling.”
Operation Fuel – http://www.operationfuel.org/
Home Energy Affordability Gap report – http://www.operationfuel.org/our-publications/
Energize Connecticut – http://www.energizect.com/