Even before energy rates skyrocketed at the start of 2023, nearly half a million households across Connecticut spent over $600 million more on energy costs over the prior year than they could afford, according to a new report from heating assistance nonprofit Operation Fuel.
That’s up about 37 percent since the group’s last report released in 2020, which found a $440 million “affordability gap.” The report details a dramatic widening of the gap between what poorer Connecticut residents can afford and what they are paying for energy.
According to the latest report, nearly a quarter of a million households earning between 30 and 60 percent of the state median income were paying on average $992 more a year on energy than they can afford – about 8 percent of their household incomes.
Operation Fuel uses a 6 percent threshold for affordability.
The gap is stark for the poorest Connecticut residents earning less than 30 percent of the state median income who on average spend nearly 20 percent of their household income on energy – about $2000 more a year than is affordable.
For another roughly 150,000 households earning between 60 and 80 percent of the median income, average energy costs just met the threshold of affordability according to the report
Operation Fuel Program Director Gannon Long said the gap is likely even wider now, given that the prices of electricity, gas and oil all rose dramatically in 2023. And although electric rates will be lower this winter than last, they’re still higher than they have been at any other point in the last 10 years.
Long said the report tracks with the dramatic spike in demand for heating assistance Operation Fuel has seen in the past three years. From August to October, they received about 4,000 applications.
Last year, they received about 4,000 applications for assistance over four months. This year, they received the same number in about two months between August and October. Long said Operation Fuel has been a year-round program, but recently it’s been overwhelmed by applications to the point of having to close applications.
“It’s a much higher percentage, and each of those applications is a family that has a need and has to go through steps before they’re able to get assistance,” Long said.
Demand for the state’s heating assistance program has also increased, just as COVID-era money bolstering the federally-funded program expires – forcing the state to cut the amount low-income residents can receive from $2,200 to $1,350.
State lawmakers and the state’s Congressional delegation have urged Congress to approve more funding for the program. The U.S. Congress made a one-time supplement to the program last year, but Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter said he wasn’t hopeful they’d do it again, and the state will have to foot the bill.
“If Congress can’t get their act together, which I don’t hold out much hope, the [state] legislature has to step in to make sure people can keep the lights on, keep the heat on,” Ritter said.
Consumer Counsel Claire Coleman said her office analyzed how much it would cost the state to support all residents receiving Medicaid, and found it would cost between $15 and $30 million, depending on the constantly changing cost of fuels.
Ritter said it could make sense for lawmakers to do what they did last winter, putting $30 million of ARPA money in escrow during an early special session to support the program in case Congress didn’t come through. The legislature has a short session in 2024, which doesn’t start until February.
“We have to do it sooner rather than later,” Ritter said.
For the first time, the Operation Fuel report analyzes cost burdens by census tract, showing that areas within the state’s largest cities have the highest gaps, consistently more than double the 6 percent of household income considered “affordable.”
In the northern end of New Haven’s Fair Haven Heights neighborhood, residents spend an average of 17 percent of their household income on energy – $2,602 more a year than they can afford on average. In the eastern side of The Hollow neighborhood in Bridgeport, residents spend 18 percent on energy – $2,407 more than they can afford a year.
In the wealthier suburbs of Fairfield County – including Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien and Wilton – the average energy burden ranges from 2 to 4 percent in each census tract. In Hartford, only a few census tracts spend less than 7 percent of their income on energy, with many tracts far exceeding 10 percent.
The report found that the state’s home weatherization assistance program, aimed to help poorer households reduce their energy use, weatherized 515 homes between 2017 and 2021, and aims to weatherize another 260 in 2023.
Meanwhile over 400,000 homes meet the income threshold for the program.
The program defers weatherization for homes with structural or mold issues, excluding much of the older rental housing in the state, the report found.