Environment: Philadelphians Face High Energy-Burden Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

On a typical summer day, Philadelphia residents can usually beat the heat at a movie theater or in a mall, spending the hottest hours of the day in air-conditioned spaces. Kids can run through sprinklers or a splash pad at a city park. For those worried about running up their utility bills, these resources are an inexpensive option to help stay cool. 

But, since the COVID-19 pandemic has limited social gatherings and closed public spaces like movie theaters and malls, residents have been stuck indoors, paying more out of pocket to keep themselves cool. 

Philadelphians already experience the financial impact of energy costs, according to Christine Knapp, the director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability.

An individual’s energy burden is calculated as the percentage of income spent on energy bills, Knapp said. The financial impact has only grown heavier over the past year, with the COVID-19 pandemic stretching household budgets, she said.

“We have a particularly high energy burden in Philadelphia across the board,” she said. “And then very high in some specific neighborhoods.” 

The average percentage of monthly income households spend on utility bills is about 3% nationally, but Philadelphia’s average is close to 6%, Knapp said. In some neighborhoods, residents spend even more.

“We also have mapping that shows some areas of the city could have 10 — or 12, or even more — percent of their income going to their energy utilities,” she said.

Philadelphia’s energy burden by census tract in 2018

Philadelphia has the highest energy burden out of all the 25 cities in the latest Greenlink Equity Report, tying with St. Louis, Missouri with a median burden of 6.7% in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for assistance, Knapp said. 

“I think there’s still a lot of folks who obviously are still struggling and will be for quite some time,” she said. “And hopefully we start recovering sooner, but I think there’ll still be lingering effects.” 

Households in need can receive assistance from LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The program offers grants of up to $1,000 to help pay heating bills and for heater replacement services. 

However, LIHEAP is a very limited solution, Knapp said. The assistance program is typically only available throughout the winter months in Philadelphia, leaving residents struggling to find other assistance during the increasingly sweltering summer months. 

“The need that folks have is likely to shift, is already starting to shift, towards people needing more support in the summertime with their electricity and cooling bills and away from their wintertime warming,” she said. 

Fortunately, assistance from the CARES Act increased contributions to LIHEAP, which meant the program was available throughout last summer and households could get assistance with energy bills throughout the hotter months. 

However, just because relief was available didn’t mean people participated in the program. LIHEAP only serves about 20% of those who qualify for the program, according to Elizabeth Marx, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project.

“We’re not even doing a good job of serving those that are eligible,” she said. 

While LIHEAP, which is federally funded, serves over 6.5 million households across the United States each year, there are still households that get left behind because they make just above the income requirement to qualify for the program, Knapp said. 

“Those folks are just above the sort of line for support,” Knapp said. “Once they hit any sort of economic setback, even if they were laid off or if they just had hours reduced, they were immediately sort of put in that place where they were very poor, but not poor enough to qualify for some of these programs.” 

There are several factors that contribute to Philadelphians’ high energy burden, Knapp said. 

First is the state of weatherization and general upkeep of homes. As Philadelphia’s homes get older, so do their utility systems, which ultimately end up costing residents more a month, Knapp said.

“Philadelphia is a very old city and a lot of our housing stock is very old, which makes it susceptible to leakage,” she said. “Whether that’s leaking out hot air, cooled air, which then costs more money to run your air conditioning, or heating to kind of get it up to the temperature you want it to.”

Philadelphia’s lower-income residents and residents of color suffer the most from high energy burdens, facing years of disinvestment in their communities, Marx said.

“When you live in a house where the windows are, in some cases in Philadelphia, 100 years old, where they haven’t been replaced, you’re gonna be using more energy to keep your home just a reasonable temperature, let alone a livable temperature,” she said. 

Aside from the aging homes and leaky systems, where someone lives can also determine energy costs. 

Some areas in Philadelphia are on average up to 22 degrees warmer than others, particularly in neighborhoods like Huntington Park and parts of North Philadelphia, according to the Heat Vulnerability Index.

The Office of Sustainability has been looking for ways to intervene directly in hotter neighborhoods. Beat the Heat Huntington Park is one such program started by the city in 2018, in collaboration with various organizations to provide that neighborhood’s residents with cooling options throughout the summer. 

“Our office’s goal is to make sure that we had an equitable kind of framework for responding to climate change, and that we were not only including, but collaborating with those who will be most affected by climate change in Philadelphia,” Cheyenne Flores, Beat the Heat’s executive director, said. 

After the city found the high heat disparity through the Heat Vulnerability Index, the City created Beat the Heat to bring more resources to those most in need, Flores said.

“We knew that we wanted to really focus and put as much attention and care into areas that weren’t getting enough attention from our policies and programs,” Flores said. “And that did turn out to be, you know, relatively low income areas.” 

The program originally set out to establish a Heat Relief Network in 2020, which would have created solutions in public spaces for staying safe from the heat, but given social distancing and COVID-19 restrictions, publicly-focused options wouldn’t have had the same impact.

Beat the Heat has instead shifted focus to tackling the problem right at the residents homes. The program has given away air conditioner units and fans to residents, as well as masks and hydration tablets alongside food distribution sites like Hunting Park Rec Center and the Hunting Park Farmer’s Market.

“We decided to pivot a little bit and focus on at home cooling for folks who are homebound and also for COVID safety precautions,” Flores said.

The program also prioritized getting heat safety and assistant program information to residents, Flores said. 

Utility rates have also been historically on the rise over the past few years, putting households at an even higher risk for a high energy burden, Marx said. 

“What’s happening is people that already had very high energy burdens are having even higher energy burdens,” she added.

PECO submitted a proposal to the PA Public Utility Commission in March to increase rates again, which would cause a 9.65% increase in monthly utility bills to residential households.

By the end of February 2020, over 127,700 PECO users were at risk for termination cumulatively owing over $79.5 million in utility bills, according to the PA Public Utility Commission. Only a year later, more than 132,000 households owe up to $150.5 million and are at risk of utility termination. 

For PGW users, over 160,000 households were at risk by the end of February 2020, owing over $70.1 million, Marx said. By the same time this year, more 169,000 households owe more than $85.5 million in overdue bills. 

As temperatures and utility rates rise, so does the burden on low-income families throughout the city. For households who are unable to pay their bills, many of them are threatened with utility shut-offs. 

PGW and PECO users were at-risk of their utilities being shut-off due to debt outstanding debt on their bills. By February 2021, over 169,000 PGW accounts were at-risk of shut offs.

PGW and PECO instituted a utility shut-off moratorium until March 31, 2021 due to the pandemic. 

Now, as the moratorium has been lifted and another hot summer approaches, residents worry about losing access to cooling.

“We’re going to go through another summer where people are going to be largely in their home and needing electricity to run fans and cooling equipment,” Marx said. “So we’re about to step in a level of accounts at risk of termination that we really haven’t ever seen.”

Aside from emergency relief, the City had also been trying to help residents lower energy costs in other ways. In 2018, it initiated the Clean Energy Vision Action Plan as an extension of the Office of Sustainability’s Powering Our Future report, which outlined the City’s plan to update Philadelphia’s energy system. The action plan set a goal to eliminate the energy burden for 33% of Philadelphians who struggle to pay their bills by updating the service lines that carry energy around the city, lowering leakage. 

Since 2013, Philadelphia has reduced the average energy burden across the city by 0.9%, and 1.2% across the most burdened communities, according to Knapp.

The Philadelphia Energy Authority has also stepped up to help lower-income families make energy-saving home repairs with the Built to Last program.

“I don’t think you can do meaningful energy efficiency in low-income owned row homes without addressing the rest of the issues in the home,” Emily Schapira, the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Energy Authority, said. 

The Built to Last program launched in 2020 and focuses on repairing homes in Philadelphia in collaboration with PGW and Habitat for Humanity, from steps to roofs, which will help residents save on utility bills through proper weatherization, Schapira said.

The City also released its updated Climate Action Playbook in January of this year, which includes plans to help fund long-term home repair for 25,000 low and moderate-income homes by 2026.

“You sort of have to look at it holistically in order to achieve those energy savings for real,” Schapira said.

– Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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