Kristi Allen photo

Operation Fuel reported Wednesday that more than 300,000 households in Connecticut will struggle to pay for heat this winter.

The nonprofit agency provides emergency assistance to low-income residents who don’t qualify for energy assistance from government programs and publishes an annual report detailing the growing affordability gap. This year the agency says energy bills will be $784 million higher than what low-income households can afford.

According to this year’s report, the number of low-income households has increased by 74,000, or 24 percent, since 2009. State residents at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level will have to pay an average of $2,560 more than they can afford for heat this year.

On Wednesday, Operation Fuel Executive Director Patricia Wrice said her agency will have about $3 million to distribute this winter, a drop in the nearly $800-million bucket her agency seeks to fill.

Roger Colton, an economist with Fisher, Sheerhan, and Colton who authored the report, said that the energy affordability gap increased 12 percent in the last year despite lower fuel prices.

He said an increase in natural gas and electricity prices, as well an increase in the number of low-income households, was driving the growing affordability gap.

For residents at or below 50 percent of the poverty level, energy bills usually exceed 50 percent of their income, said Colton.

“It is far more than a home energy issue, “Colton said, adding that inability to pay energy bills had been linked to homelessness, increased school dropout rates, and lower academic performance.

“We are supposedly in economic recovery, but the fact of the matter is that wages have not gone up, which puts more stress on families across the state” Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said.

Last year, Operation Fuel provided a total of more than $3 million dollars to about 7,000 families throughout the state. The grant amounts to about $500 per year, per household.

Most fuel assistance in Connecticut is provided through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal program that provides energy assistance to people at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Connecticut received $76 million through the program last year.  Because of federal budget cuts, the funding level is down from more than $100 million in recent years. 

Wrice emphasized that LIHEAP funding only covers about 9 percent of fuel affordability needs in Connecticut. Operation Fuel specializes in helping residents whose incomes fall just above the cut-off for government assistance or those who are experiencing a temporary crisis.

“When the state had deep pockets, they did supplement that and it came through Operation Fuel,” Wrice said, but the agency will not being seeing any extra funds while the state is facing a deficit. They receive about a third of their funding from state grants.

For more information and a list of fuel banks go to:  www.operationfuel.org/.