Millions Need Help With Cooling Bills as Shut-Offs Loom

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We know that heat waves – especially in urban environments – are catastrophic. In 1995, a July heat wave in Chicago killed more than 700 people. Most victims were elderly who lacked air conditioning and were afraid to open their windows for safety reasons.

This summer, the risks of a similar disaster are high due to a confluence of events: extreme summer heat caused by global warming, an economic downturn from the pandemic leaving families unable to pay their electric bills to cool their houses, and the requirement to stay inside those homes due to the pandemic that makes them unable to get away from the heat if they do not have air conditioning.

Why are low-income households the most impacted by rising temperatures? Because in-home air conditioning is cost prohibitive for many Americans, and community cooling centers pose a COVID-19 danger this year, especially to elderly or immunocompromised individuals.

Worse, climate change is making the country hotter right now – across the nation we are facing record-breaking hot summer months. Renee Salas, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard, warns: “Many of those most at risk [from the heat] are … the very people shown to be more at risk of infections and dying of covid-19. Heat leads to heat stroke, makes people with [health conditions] sicker … This creates a deadly trifecta that is a recipe for disaster.”

Outdoor workers, the elderly, and pregnant women are a few of the populations most at risk of heat-related health complications. A recent review of studies found that exposure to extreme heat and air pollution during pregnancy had adverse health effects on births. One report found that for every 10-degree temperature increase, preterm deliveries increased an average of 8.6%, with minorities faring worse than whites.

Something needs to be done to help people afford their electric bills to cool their homes. The utility that serves the Columbus, Ohio, region says they have 54,000 customers with overdue electric bills. That is only one of over 3,300 electric utilities in the country. Imagine how many people can’t afford their bills New York, California or Texas – and the rest of the United States. The question is: will the president and the Congress do anything about it in the next round of pandemic relief legislation?

Unfortunately, Congress is dramatically underfunding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Known as LIHEAP, it is a decades-old program that helps people who cannot afford to pay their gas, electric and heating oil bills. 

All 50 states plus Washington, D.C., provide LIHEAP assistance. However, today, the program is only funded enough to cover part of the energy bill for one in six eligible households. And this year, 8.5 million additional families need help because they  lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, bringing the total number of eligible up to almost 44 million households.  

What's the solution?

Congress provided an additional $900 million for energy assistance as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March. That funding is woefully insufficient. In response, my organization, which represents the priorities of the executives who run LIHEAP across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., asked for an additional $4.3 billion to address the full scope of the crisis. The funds would be used to help an additional 11.2 million households and provide the funds to purchase and operate one million air-conditioning units for low-income elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Because of the pandemic, thankfully, electricity and gas shutoff moratoriums were put in place in the spring and kept families connected even if they couldn’t pay their bills. But those moratoriums are expiring. 

In fact, of the 32 states that issued shutoff moratoriums, nine have already expired. Additional moratoriums are set to expire in seven more states by Aug. 30. But many of the workers whose jobs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are still out of work. And now, they have to come up with money to pay for not only their most recent electricity bill, but all of their electric bills since the moratoriums were put in place.

Congress needs to act now and provide additional $4.3 billion for LIHEAP. Access to affordable energy is not a luxury but should be considered a basic right. We can prevent unnecessary suffering this summer by helping our most vulnerable households pay their electric bills.  It’s that simple and it’s the right thing to do. 

Mark Wolfe is an energy economist and executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. Contact him at mwolfe@neada.org.

Cass Lovejoy is policy director at the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.



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