Operation Fuel released its annual report Thursday and announced that there is a stark gap between what low-income families in Connecticut can afford to pay in energy bills and what they owe.

Roger D. Colton, the economist who prepared the report, said the home energy affordability gap for households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level was $662 million in total, or about $2,304 per household. That means low income families owed upwards of $2,000 more in energy bills than they could afford to pay this year.

Last year
the affordability gap was $505 million or about $2,200 per household.

“That number is incomprehensible and there’s no way to make it real to people,” he said. “… I believe the numbers can’t quantify the real life pain that is represented by unaffordable home energy bills.”

Patricia Wrice is executive director of Operation Fuel, a nonprofit that tries to aid people having trouble heating their homes. She said people often have to make tough and sometimes dangerous choices when they can’t afford to pay the bills.

Wrice said she recently spoke to an elderly woman who had been turning off her furnace, hoping she wouldn’t use up all her fuel. If her tank were to run dry she would have to pay to have her furnace primed. Instead, the woman has been turning on her oven for heat, which is a dangerous practice.

“I said to her ‘don’t do that,’ but it really frightened me that as a society that’s what we’ve come to,” Wrice said.

While there is a federal program called the Low Income Heating Assistance Program that provides aid to some households, Colton said it’s funding has been inadequate to address the heating crisis. With the current state of the federal budget he said the situation likely will worsen before it gets better.

Gloria McAdam, president of the nonprofit Foodshare, said the energy assistance crisis is similar in many ways to the problem her organization tries to address — hunger. While private nonprofits like Operation Fuel and Foodshare do what they can to help, McAdam said they will never have the resources to fully address the problems and said it’s up to government to fill the void.

“People are going to go hungry, they are going to be cold this winter. The only source of money that could solve this problem is going to be government. It’s the only one large enough to be able to do it,” she said.

Wrice said Operation Fuel has been pushing for years to see Connecticut enact a low-income energy affordability rate. Every other state in New England has subsidized lower energy rates for low-income households, she said. Wrice also praised the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which she said helps people catch up on their bills during the winter.