Jack Kramer photo
Roger Colton, author of the report, talks about the results (Jack Kramer photo)

HARTFORD, CT – Connecticut’s energy affordability gap decreased over the past year but only because energy costs were lower. It’s a trend that isn’t likely to last, experts who monitor utility costs for the needy warned Tuesday.

There is now a $399 million energy affordability gap for state households with incomes at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, according to an annual report by Operation Fuel.

The affordability gap is the portion of their energy bills that 322,000 households in Connecticut can’t afford to pay, not the entire amount they owe.

The $399 million figure is $71 million less than the $470 million figure in 2015.

But even though the affordability gap dollar figure decreased, the number of Connecticut households that can’t afford their energy bills increased in 2016, from 313,000 to 322,000, according to the report.

On average, each of the 322,000 households owes about $1,241 more in annual energy bills than they can afford to pay, according to the report.
“Even though prices were lower this past year, there still is a significant gap between what lower-income households pay for energy bills and what they actually can afford to pay,” Karen E. Adamson, Operation Fuel’s executive director, said.

“And when low-income households do pay their bills in full and on time, it is frequently at the expense of other basic necessities such as nutritious food, health care, and education,” added Adamnson.

But the long run on lower fuel costs is likely to end.

“Costs are anticipated this winter to increase,” Adamson said.

Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, who is co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said fuel assistance is needed by families in not just the larger, poorer cities, but also the smaller, more affluent towns.

“In my own community of Branford, 17 families were helped by Operation Fuel last year,” Reed said.

Operation Fuel is Connecticut’s only year-round, statewide nonprofit emergency assistance program. This past fiscal year, Operation Fuel provided over $3.18 million in energy assistance to more than 7,705 Connecticut households.

Also at Tuesday’s press conference was Rick Porth, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Connecticut.

Porth said the affordability gap report and the work Operation Fuel does as a result of it “shines a light” on a big problem in the state, stating the United Way “received 25,000 phone calls last year” from people asking for some sort of assistance in paying their utility bills.
Roger D. Colton, who authored the affordability gap report, was in attendance at the press conference, and said state politicians – and those in Washington, too – need to act to assist those in need of help paying heating bills.

“Our new Congress and our new president should, no must maintain federal assistance programs,” Colton said. He added that the Connecticut General Assembly should follow the lead of other neighboring states, such as New Hampshire and Maine, among others, which have passed “bill affordability programs.’’

Bill affordability programs, Colton explained, force utility companies to come up with programs where those at the upper-end of the economic scale pay a bit more to balance out the costs of those at the lower end.

Among the other findings of the Connecticut affordability gap report, were:

—  The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) allocation was $85 million, which covered only about 21 percent of the state’s affordability gap during that time period.

—    More than 400,000 Connecticut residents with incomes at or below 200 percent or poverty live in multi-family housing units, and the vast majority are renters.

“The need for emergency energy assistance for Connecticut’s most vulnerable households is extensive,” Adamson said. “But our state’s available resources for addressing this problem are extremely insufficient. We must continue to work together to find solutions to Connecticut’s affordability crisis.”