The price of heating a home last year in Connecticut cost homeowners $585 million more than they could afford, according to a study commissioned by a nonprofit fuel assistance organization. That gap has increased by $330 million over the past three years.
The study commissioned by Operation Fuel found that home energy burdens have risen 40 percent since 2005 and low income residents are spending more than 85 percent of their annual income on energy.
“This problem is statewide. It affects people of all ages and it is no longer limited to low-income households,” Patricia Wrice, executive director for Operation Fuel, said at a Capitol news conference last week. She said Operation Fuel provided $6 million in emergency assistance to more than 13,000 Connecticut households last year.
In the past, the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance, or LIHEAP, always offered some relief. But according to the study, funding for that program has “historically been grossly insufficient” to fill the gap. After a funding increase for Fiscal Year 2009, the $96 million in LIHEAP funds Connecticut received still covered less than 17 percent of the affordability gap.
Roger Colton, the economist who authored the study, said there is good news and bad news about LIHEAP. The good news is that it’s improving the lives of those who need it. “The bad news is that LIHEAP is seriously underfunded.”
Colton said LIHEAP covers about a one-fifth of the home energy needs of low income households in Connecticut. “Or, seen in a different way,” he said, “LIHEAP misses about four-fifths of the need of low-income households in Connecticut and LIHEAP is falling behind.”
While those present at the news conference had no formal proposals, they all seemed to share the opinion that low-income discounted rates would go furthest in closing the gap between what people pay for energy and what they can afford.
“We are the only state in the northeast that does not have a low-income discounted rate. We think we have strong support from the utility companies on that,” Wrice said.
Jeffrey D. Butler, president and chief operating officer of Connecticut Light & Power, agreed. “We believe that there is a place for low-income customer rates here in Connecticut. And we’d encourage people to look at it and ask the (Department of Public Utility Control) to evaluate the merits of a discount for those citizens truly in need, and oversee the development of such a program.”
Rep. Steve Fontana, D-North Haven, a member of Environment Committee and a supporter of discounted rates, pointed out that discounts would require utilities to raise rates on consumers that can afford it.
Wrice said that with utility companies on board all that is needed is legislation that allows the discounted rates. She said they had support for such a measure during the last legislative session but the clock ran out before it could be passed.