Commentary

New national poll shows what Americans think about big energy bills. You may be surprised.

[This story is cross-posted with permission from Deron Lovaas at NRDC’s Expert Blog.]

Huge numbers of Americans struggle and sacrifice to afford energy bills—a fact the majority understands and would even pay more to help rectify, a new poll shows.

The poll, commissioned by Energy Efficiency for All (see the North Carolina Energy Efficiency for All page here), follows groundbreaking reports that found that on average low-income urban households pay more than twice as much in energy bills as a percentage of their income as others, with rural America taking an even bigger hit.

According to the poll, 43 percent of people making less than $40,000 a year say they make sacrifices such as forgoing opportunities in education and healthcare so they can pay for energy. Only 14 percent of those making $100,000 or more do so. And almost one in five of the former report making a “serious sacrifice” while just 3 percent of the latter do.

The poll also found that racial minorities and low-income renters are hit hardest by high utility bills. Three times as many African-Americans and twice as many Latinos report making serious sacrifices to afford their utility bills compared to non-minority households. Likewise, low-income renters with incomes less than $40,000 a year report making serious sacrifices at higher rates compared to all other homeowners and renters.

The poll results are consistent with findings from research on the prevalence of high energy burdens conducted by EEFA and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). It makes intuitive sense that lower-income Americans would use more of their paychecks to pay for energy, giving them a greater “energy burden,” but what the reports also found is that people with limited income have a bigger burden because they often are not able to take advantage of energy-saving appliances, windows, lightbulbs and weather stripping, and they tend to live in older homes, apartments and manufactured housing that waste energy.

The reports discovered, for example, that if low-income housing stock were brought up to the efficiency level of the average U.S. home, 35 percent of the average low-income energy burden of low-income households would be eliminated. For African-American and Latino households, 42 percent and 68 percent of the excess energy burden, respectively, would be gone.

Closing that gap is important to the families involved, obviously, but it’s also important to all of us in terms of our health and well-being. Families who can reduce energy waste have more money left over to feed and educate their children, more to contribute to the economy, and they help reduce the burning of fossil fuels and improve the air we breathe.

There are real people behind these numbers.

Crystal Barbour, a mother from Charlottesville, Virginia, who was interviewed as part of EEFA’s research, says that she dreaded the monthly ritual of opening her utility bill.

“You would eat cheap when it was electric bill week,” she said.

Barbour’s story—like many others we have documented—greatly improved with energy-efficiency programs that helped her save money and better feed and clothe her children. Read more

2018 Fiscal Year State Budget, Environment, public health

NCGA welcomes 2017 hurricane season with abysmal disaster relief funding budget

Last week, the NC General Assembly welcomed in 2017’s hurricane season with a woefully inadequate budget proposal for Hurricane Matthew disaster relief funding. At only $150 million slated for hurricane recovery with $930 million of unmet need, the NCGA misses an opportunity to address long-term environmental and community resiliency.

Poultry waste can be seen streaming into floodwaters from flooded poultry facility near Seven Springs, NC

Poultry waste can be seen streaming into floodwaters from flooded poultry facility near Seven Springs, NC

Last October, in the wake of the hurricane, the Neuse River reached an historic peak of 29.74 feet, wreaking havoc on the region’s waterways and displacing thousands of people, destroying homes and entire communities, and exacerbating existing environmental justice issues in the region. The flooding contaminated the Neuse, Cape Fear, and Lumber River watersheds from various industrial polluters – including 14 swine waste lagoons, human waste from wastewater treatment facilities, and coal ash from a dam breach at the H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro. Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr notes that communities are likely also facing contamination from poultry facilities, but because the Department of Environmental Quality does not require them to be permitted, they have no record of where these facilities are and therefore cannot do the appropriate testing.

Climate change will make problems worse

In a region that is already hurting from decades of environmental injustices – enduring the worst of industrial swine and poultry operations and coal burning power plants – displacement and disruption from this kind of natural disaster only worsens conditions for the families who have historically been industry dumping ground.

Unfortunately, climate change will only make the problem worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that this year’s hurricane season will be a busy one – with an above-average number of storms expected in the Atlantic. Climate change creates conditions for continuous rainfall and flooding, not just major storms, which also pose a threat for frontline communities. Flood plain management in eastern North Carolina will be critical for its ability to weather future natural disasters. The state must move agricultural and municipal wastewater facilities out of the 100-year floodplains to avoid future flooding-induced contamination, and we must rebuild the outdated water and sewer infrastructure to protect the health and safety thousands of families. With last week’s announcement from the Trump Administration that the U.S. will exit the Paris Climate Agreement, it is unlikely that we will see action quick enough to curb the worst effects of a quickly changing climate.

We need leadership

The NCGA must take the long view in rebuilding eastern NC. NC leaders continue to ignore the scale of the problem, continue to leave thousands of children and families behind. How much longer will our elected leaders insist on a Band-Aid to stop a gaping wound?

Commentary, Trump Administration

Yet another disastrous Trump budget proposal: Slashing low-income energy assistance

Imagine: It’s January, and your car — the car you share with your partner to get to and from work — has just broken down. It has not been a particularly cold winter, but the apartment you rent is not well insulated so it is generally miserable unless you turn the heater up high. Upon arriving home you discover that your heating bill has arrived and it’s three times what you can afford. You will now have to choose whether to pay to get your car fixed so you can get to work, or pay the heating bill or risk a shut off by the gas company.

Thousands of low income families in North Carolina and across the country have to make these types of decisions all the time. This is why the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) exists – it provides critical monetary support to families who need help paying their energy bills. It is also, not surprisingly, one of the programs the Trump administration’s budget blueprint proposes to eliminate.

LIHEAP is an important program for our most vulnerable communities – particularly the elderly and the disabled – who are most susceptible to extreme heat and cold. These folks and low-income families often live in lower quality housing and have disproportionately high energy burdens, meaning they are paying more than 30% of their incomes in energy bills. LIHEAP provides essential relief to families who are struggling to pay their bills, and commonly have to make difficult decisions about which essential service they will be able to pay for from month to month – e.g. prescription refills or the heating bill?

In North Carolina, LIHEAP served over 191,000 households in 2016. Out of these households, 33% included an elderly person, 35% included someone with a disability, and 22% included a child under five years old. A typical family of three receiving LIHEAP assistance has a combined income of less than $17,000 a year.

The Trump administration believes that LIHEAP is ineffective – but LIHEAP’s main success is in supporting families with short-term energy emergencies. A LIHEAP family with an elderly grandparent living in the home may be experiencing a particularly cold winter and running an inefficient heater more than usual, resulting in a higher energy bill. The grandparent may also need extra medical care because of the colder weather, generating another unexpected expense for the family and placing them teetering on the edge of utility disconnection or putting them further in debt. LIHEAP provides the short-term bill assistance needed to get a family through the winter with dignity. LIHEAP also provides families with energy-related low-cost home repairs or replacements, to give these families a leg up beyond just bill assistance.

LIHEAP is a critical part of the social safety net for low-income families, and should be expanded, not eliminated. Since 2011, Congress has cut LIHEAP funding significantly, reducing its purchasing power and its role in maintaining family stability. Currently, LIHEAP is only able to meet 17% of the actual need nationally, and 16% of the need in North Carolina according to the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition. It is essential for Congress to support our most vulnerable families first – and programs like LIHEAP do just that.

As with so many of the Trump safety net proposals, let’s hope members of Congress think twice before rubber stamping more cuts to this vital program. You can tweet to #saveLIHEAP to help share this message.