Americans limit air conditioning as electricity bills rise due to heat

And to avoid using the stove upstairs, she makes sandwiches and reheats food in the microwave.

Morris, 65, had already experienced a power outage in June — when the Chicago area thermometer rose to 90 degrees in seven days — after she fell behind on payments. She was forced to use her savings to pay a nearly $500 bill, which she can’t do again as she has a fixed income after retiring last year.

Heatwaves affected much of the US in the first half of the summer, forcing Americans to deal with debilitating conditions. On Tuesday, more than 100 million people were warned about the onset of the heat wave.

Attacks of high temperatures became more frequent and intense with each decade., and they last longer than before, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But many people have had to cut back on their air conditioners to try and keep their energy bills in check as they also grapple with the price hike of food, gas and other essentials.

Americans’ energy bills are expected to rise 20% to average $540 this summer compared to the same period last year, according to the National Association of Energy Aid Directors.

But even if people limit their usage, they can still get bigger bills. Residential electricity prices are rising faster this summer than in previous years, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The increase is partly due to the rising cost of natural gas, which is used to generate electricity. Natural gas prices jumped after a decline in production during the pandemic, as well as shortages due to the war in Ukraine.
However, air conditioning is needed not only for comfort. It is a necessity for many people, especially those with poor health. Over 700 people in the USA die from heat-related causes on average each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deaths are generally considered preventable.

“Instances of extreme heat are deadly and are on the rise,” said Stephen Walls, a green building advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Aiding cooling could help avoid hundreds of deaths a year.”

Lack of federal assistance

But there is far less government assistance to help people afford to cool their homes compared to heating them in the winter, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Association of Energy Aid Directors.

The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, helps low-income Americans pay their heating and cooling bills. The money is distributed through states and local community groups, but only 34 states and the District of Columbia offer cooling assistance to their residents. All states have programs to help people stay warm in the winter.

What’s more, just 15% of federal funds are used to cover cooling costs.

Congress contributed $4.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan to LIHEAP, adding $3.8 billion to the program’s appropriations for the current fiscal year. But this is still not enough to meet the demand for heating, let alone cooling.

“The main problem is that we don’t have enough money to run a robust refrigeration program,” Wolfe said, noting that the importance of this has not yet been “registered” in Congress.

Alice Gachuzo-Colin of Springdale, Arkansas, reached out to a local non-profit agency last month to help pay her electricity bill so her power won’t go out. turns off in the middle of the night. But she was told no available funds and Try later.

So she had to spend almost all of her savings to pay the $256 bill. And for July, the tab is 314 dollars, which she should have indicated to her three children.

“Yesterday there was a big, huge accident in my house because my kids were like, ‘I’m hot,’ and I’m like, ‘You all, the light bill is $300-something’ — Gachuzo-Colin. The 43-year-old, who works as a personal banker at a local bank, said in mid-July.

She usually pays $160 or $170 a month during the summer.

Gachuzo-Colin tries to limit the use of air conditioners in the family, but it’s tough when the temperature often exceeds 90 degrees and her 13-year-old daughter’s asthma worsens in the heat. The Springdale area is expected to experience the fourth warmest summer on record.

Electric Companies have expanded their flexible billing and payment programs during the pandemic to help customers stay up to date, Adam Cooper, senior director of customer solutions at the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for investor-owned electric companies, wrote in an email. Many allow customers to sign into balance billing programs where they pay the same amount each month. This smooths out seasonal spikes in usage.

Companies are also reaching out to financially struggling consumers about assistance programs like LIHEAP, Cooper said.

But repayment plans do not always ease the financial burden of families. Minneapolis resident Scott Norcross recently entered one to keep his power from going out after he was several hundred dollars behind on payments, mostly due to using the air conditioner over the past few months. He now has to shell out about $100 on top of his monthly bill, which he says is three times what it was before the pandemic.

“Our electricity bills were getting higher and higher and higher,” said Norcross, 55, a disabled person suffering from heat. “We really can’t afford the extra charge, but we have to do something if we want the electricity to stay on.”

Norcross, whose wife works as a personal care assistant and eldest son works in retail, applied for energy assistance but was told his family’s income was $800 over the limit.

The couple and their two young adult sons get in the car and turn on the air conditioner for 20-30 minutes to cool off several times a day, depending on how hot it is. On Tuesday, the temperature rose to at least 90 degrees, which will be the 13th time this year.

Blackouts looming

Only 17 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have safeguards in place that prevent utilities from turning off power for people who can’t keep up with their bills. But they only take effect when temperatures reach a certain level or when heat advisories are in effect, Wolfe said. For example, for Nevada and Delaware, this threshold is 105 degrees.

This is comparable to 33 states and the District of Columbia. which do not allow utilities to turn off heat in winter.

Nearly all states and the District of Columbia provide some protection to residents with confirmed medical conditions, although many are only delaying shutdowns for 30 days.

However, many people whose health has deteriorated due to high temperatures do not qualify.

Although he suffers from a thyroid condition that makes him very sensitive to heat, Walter Protheroe now sets the air conditioner to 78 degrees instead of the more comfortable 72 degrees. This makes his electricity bill affordable as he is disabled and lives on a fixed income.

This means that the 64-year-old Houston resident has to spend most of the day lying on the couch. He can only take short outdoor walks twice a week instead of his daily one-mile walk because he can’t go back to his cool home in a city that is struggling with the hottest summer to date.

A former research engineer, Prothero thought his June bill would be around $90, but it was actually $125. He expects to shell out about $150 this month and likely more than $170 in August if the heat wave continues.

“I’m just dealing with it the best I can,” Protheroe said. “It’s too expensive to run the air conditioner that often.”

CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward contributed to the story.

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