Many Philadelphians Struggle to Pay Energy Bills, but Help is Available

Local organizations and utility companies help low-income households reduce their usage and afford their bills.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022
Many Philadelphians Struggle to Pay Energy Bills, but Help is Available
Many Philadelphians Struggle to Pay Energy Bills, but Help is Available

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As temperatures fall and energy prices rise, millions of Americans are struggling to afford heating their homes. More than one in five households in the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area have been unable to pay their energy bills in full at least once in the last year, according to a 6abc analysis of Census Bureau survey data. Rates are even higher among low-income households, communities of color and individuals with disabilities.

Household energy is quickly becoming more expensive, with prices up 29% from last year in the tristate metro area, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The local cost of electricity has gone up by one fifth, while utility gas service costs one third more than it did this time last year.

Increased costs meant that when Philadelphians did manage to pay their energy bills, it often came with significant sacrifice: 22% of households in the tristate metro area kept their homes at a temperature they felt was unsafe or unhealthy and 28% said they had reduced or forgone basic necessities, such as food or medicine, to pay an energy bill.

Black and Hispanic or Latino Philadelphians were two to three times as likely as white Philadelphians to report these difficulties. Philadelphians who are unable to see, hear, remember, concentrate, walk or climb stairs reported these experiences at the highest rates: More than half were unable to pay an energy bill in the last year, with over a third unable to pay almost every month, and over a quarter had to regularly endure harmful temperatures or go without necessities to cover their monthly energy costs.

Gail Prior knows these struggles well. As a Block Captain in Nicetown, where she's lived for 39 years, Prior comes across many families that must choose between paying their utility bills and paying their rent. She too has faced times when she "just couldn't afford that monthly bill."

Energy Assistance is Available

When Prior and her son felt drafts so strong they thought the windows were open, she discovered her home didn't have storm windows to insulate it from the cold. That's when she learned about the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides free resources and training to help low-income households reduce and afford their energy bills. Prior went to her local Neighborhood Energy Center (NEC), one of ECA's 16 energy services hubs across the city. There she enrolled in a program that taught her how to weatherize her home and gave her the tools to do it herself.

"I got doors, I got windows," Prior said, smiling. "I was just so happy, I'm still tickled. I still have it and it's still working."

Since using ECA's services, Prior has seen her energy bills go down and has gotten help paying them. ECA staff helped her enroll in her utility companies' payment assistance programs, including PECO's Customer Assistance Program (CAP) and Philadelphia Water's Tiered Assistance Program (TAP), as well as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) run through the Department of Health and Human Services. Each of these programs provides credits or income-adjusted billing for home energy costs, and CAP forgives all outstanding debt when customers enroll.

In addition to bill payment assistance, PECO offers a usage reduction program, which can help customers replace an old fridge or heating system to lower their energy costs, and a situational assistance program that works one-on-one with customers facing extenuating circumstances. Community Engagement Manager Patricia King says PECO does "extensive outreach" to make sure customers are aware of this assistance.

PECO customers must meet income guidelines to qualify for these programs, with thresholds varying from 150% to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.

"Some people think that their immigration status or things like that matter -- They do not," King added. "It's strictly your income."

Low-income households typically spend a quarter of their total earnings on energy bills -- five times the share of household earnings spent by middle-income families, according to ECA CEO Steve Luxton.

"That disparity is absolutely startling," he said.

PGW also offers assistance programs for income-eligible customers, including its Customer Responsibility Program (CRP), which eliminates past debt and adjusts future bills based on income, and programs that provide free home weatherization and smart thermostats to reduce energy usage.

"PGW recently expanded its access for customers," said Public Information Manager Richard Barnes. "We're now in more than a dozen Neighborhood Energy Centers around the city, so customers can go there for in-person assistance with PGW-trained energy counselors."

According to King, partnerships with community-based organizations like ECA are critical to PECO's assistance programs: Community members' trust in these organizations allows utility companies to reach more of their customers.

"All the NEC's are very connected with the people in their community," said Lorraine Horton, Director of Community Programs at ECA, noting that the staff know important details like which neighbors are homebound and which don't speak English. "We're the only ones that have this type of model that actually is set in the communities of the people that they service," she added.

In addition to bridging the gap between utility companies and their customers in need, ECA provides its own services, including one-on-one energy use and budget counseling.

"They bring in their utility bills, they bring in their income and we try to show them how we can make that work for them," Horton said.

The organization also runs a Heater Hotline program, which repairs broken heating systems for free and refers eligible customers needing a new heater to replacement grants. Each year, the program repairs or replaces 5,000 heaters.

Horton recalled a time when a woman reached out to the Heater Hotline and said she hadn't had heat in three years: "Her husband passed away, she didn't know how or where to go, and she and the dog were sleeping in the kitchen during the winter," Horton said. "A neighbor came by and told her about going to a Neighborhood Energy Center, and they're the ones that connected her with the Heater Hotline program."

To Luxton, summer presents an even more dangerous energy crisis for low-income households: "High temperatures in a house -- 85 degrees on a day-in, day-out basis -- that can be extremely unhealthy, particularly to folks that have medical conditions and to elderly people," he noted.

Home weatherization can help regulate both heat and cold by tightly sealing windows and doors to maximize insulation. ECA weatherizes about 800 homes each year.

ECA also runs home weatherization workshops so that their clients can install their own energy-saving equipment. Workshop attendees go home with a do-it-yourself kit including a door sweep, caulk and plastic window film, as well as a basic understanding of how air moves through rooms and a host of energy-saving tips. Community Programs Coordinator Barbara Jean McDuffie designed the workshops to be motivating, participatory and accessible.

McDuffie displays a window covering that comes in the home weatherization kits given out at ECA's workshops.

"We don't use a bunch of industry jargon," McDuffie said. "We break it way down, so that the average Joe and Josephine Carpenter can understand it."

McDuffie has heard from many workshop attendees about how much they've benefitted from the information and tools provided. She remembered one attendee whose husband had taken care of their home's heater until he passed away, so the wife didn't know there was a replaceable filter in the heater until she learned about it at an ECA workshop. As soon as she got home from the workshop, she went down to her basement and pulled out the filter.

"Obviously it was so dirty," McDuffie said. "She actually took a picture and sent that to me like saying, 'Thank you, I never knew this.'"

McDuffie hopes people who have been to ECA workshops share the tips they've learned with their neighbors and other community members who are struggling to pay for their energy needs.

"It's all about each one, teach one," she said.

Spreading the Word

In the last year, ECA's Neighborhood Energy Centers served 5,142 people citywide. Still, far more Philadelphians struggle to pay their energy bills. According to Horton and McDuffie, many of these people simply don't know that assistance is available.

"If they can't find it, they don't have it," Prior said. She added that pride often gets in the way too, preventing people from accessing the help they need.

Now Prior acts a liaison, connecting local community members with the same resources she has used to reduce their energy usage, pay their bills and avoid utility shutoffs.

"There was a family and they had four kids and they were about to be evicted," Prior recalled. "I said, 'No, what you need to do is go to Crisis, and they'll help you.'" The family was able to get six months of rental assistance so they could stay in their home and keep their energy running.

Philadelphia-area households with children were twice as likely to be unable to pay an energy bill in the last year as those without children, according to the 6abc data analysis.

For these homes, the stakes are especially high: Utility shutoffs can separate their families. When a household loses utility service, authorities often remove any children because the home is deemed unfit for them. Sometimes, PECO's community programs can help reunite these families. King remembered a family that reached out to PECO after their children had been taken away from them due to a shutoff.

"Checking their income, getting their documentation, we saw that they were eligible for our CAP program," King said. "We were able to wipe away their arrearage entirely, enroll them on CAP, restore their service, they got their children back."

Equity Through Energy

Energy insecurity is self-reinforcing, with the very communities that struggle to afford utilities also unable to afford the home upgrades and energy-efficient systems that could reduce their usage and lower their bills. Families that have been generationally disadvantaged are left behind when new industries like solar energy are introduced to households, Luxton said.

But the gaps in access to affordable energy also present an opportunity to offer support and increase equity citywide.

"Energy security is a key determinant of poverty," King noted. "And that's where we have a role as the utility company, where we can help in the space of poverty."

Energy insecurity reaches above the poverty line, too. As prices continue to rise, more and more Americans will likely face difficulty affording their utilities.

"All of us is one paycheck, one disaster or one bad decision away from being eligible and being needy of all of these programs," McDuffie said.

Prior, King, Barnes and everyone at ECA shared the same message for Philadelphians struggling to pay their energy bills: Help is available, so take advantage of it.