Connecticut residents who struggle to pay their energy bills often suffer from physical and mental health issues as a result.
That is one of many findings in a new study of energy insecurity based on interviews with 22 residents of varying ages and races from around the state. The study was a joint undertaking by the Yale School of Public Health, Yale School of the Environment, Vermont Law and Graduate School, and Operation Fuel, an energy-assistance nonprofit.
“Energy insecurity is a health issue,” said Laura Bozzi, director of programs at the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health. “That’s an important point because that’s not often how it’s understood. It’s usually thought of as an economic or energy issue. But it also affects people’s health.”
Participants talked about keeping the heat turned down or off in winter even though the cold worsened the various chronic medical conditions of household members.
Those who rely on medical devices to manage health conditions such as asthma talked about the risk to their health posed by power outages, whether due to unpaid bills or storms.
Many talked about having to forego groceries or proper dietary care in order to keep the lights on.
The struggle to pay energy bills, in addition to causing stress and anxiety, also caused feelings of shame and sadness. Participants talked about trying to hide those worries from their children.
“You can’t really tell your kid, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to pay the lights this month,’” one participant said. “They don’t really understand that.”
Feelings of shame also prevented some people from applying for energy assistance. Some who had applied for assistance through the electric utilities complained about the cumbersome process and slow follow-up. And many participants faulted energy assistance organizations for asking too many intrusive questions about their personal circumstances. Some decided not to apply as a result.
“When one of the participants brought up Operation Fuel’s name, I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Brenda Watson, the nonprofit’s executive director. “It made me realize that we need to do the work so we don’t create that sort of experience for people who are in a crisis. What do we need to do to improve our trust issues?”
Energy insecurity also has considerable overlap with housing conditions. Watson said she was taken aback by how many participants talked about landlords who disregarded hazardous conditions like mold or leaky ceilings.
“I’ve heard stories from other advocates, but [prior to the study] I’ve never heard from an actual person that they’ve been threatened with eviction or told to just move instead of the landlord addressing issues with their property,” she said. “For landlords to act like that suggests they have law and policy behind them. They know there aren’t going to be very many consequences.”
The failure to correct such conditions also makes it impossible for residents to access the state’s free weatherization programs, which could make their homes more efficient and cut their energy bills. The state recently set up a fund to help cover the cost of remediation for mold and other health hazards, and plans to reach out to landlords in particular. Watson said that while the remediation program is welcome, it’s been far too long in coming.
“Here we’ve had a problem going back 20 years,” she said. “System planners knew there were homes that couldn’t get weatherized. Now it’s finally going to get addressed. There’s a huge disconnect between what poverty is and what it means for people, and who policymakers choose to prioritize.”
Sarah Gledhill, a graduate student in environmental management at Yale and a member of the research team, said the biggest takeaway for her was how energy insecurity overlapped with so many other issues in peoples’ lives.
“We were talking about energy insecurity but we ended up hearing about peoples’ overall experience with poverty,” she said. “Health care, the quality of their housing, grocery bills. In the end, we touched on so many different things.”
The report makes a number of policy recommendations, including making energy costs more transparent for renters, such as through a home energy score. (Legislation requiring home energy scores has twice been beaten back by the real estate lobby, Watson said.) The team plans to ensure that those recommendations get into the hands of decision-makers — the study has already been entered into several dockets under review by the state Public Utility Regulatory Authority.
Getting these voices into the record is critical, said Kim Mashke, a graduate student in energy regulation and law at Vermont Law and another research team member.
“We’ve enshrined these voices and very raw lived experiences within a formal report,” Mashke said. “And these stories will now have a presence in decision-making spaces.”