Summer heat has been reaching triple digits more often in more places, especially in the U.S. South. It’s one of the clearest signals of our warming climate.
And a 2022 Washington Post analysis predicts more of the same: The next 30 years will bring the biggest more dangerous heat days to the South — from the Gulf Coast to Maryland.
“This is a very personal issue,” said Juanita Constible, senior climate and health advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate adaptation team who has family members in Tennessee. “Since it’s hotter than normal, you have this double issue of higher energy bills and infrastructure that was not designed for the summers of the future.”
Constible noted that energy burdens, the percentage of personal income needed to pay energy bills, tend to be highest in low-income communities and those with less energy-efficient infrastructure.
Jennifer Whitfield, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, pointed out that among low-income families, Black households tend to have higher energy burdens than White households, and the highest energy burdens afflict regions with more energy demand and lower energy efficiency.
“When you put that all together it’s plain that we have a real energy burden issue that is also an equity issue,” Whitfield said. “And the highest low-income energy burden is seen in the South, specifically in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.”
People can lower their energy burdens through conservation, for instance insulating their homes and using energy-efficient appliances, but such investments can be financially out of reach for many low-income families. Some federal funding is available to help, and more is on the way in many places. But in the meantime, advocates worry that people facing extreme heat may have to choose whether to pay for air conditioning or other essentials.
“It’s only going to keep getting worse, and we still seem to keep falling further behind when it comes to preparing for it,” Constible said. Electric power utilities and consumers must get more serious about addressing this problem, advocates say, by boosting the energy efficiency of houses, offices, factories, and household appliances.
The grid isn’t ready
Constible said that current energy infrastructure is not designed to handle the extreme heat of recent years. Increased demand for air conditioning can lead to brownouts, leaving entire communities without electricity if power plants are unable to meet demand.
“The other thing is you can have heat-related damage to power sector components,” Constible said. Heat can cause transmission lines to sag and become less efficient. In extreme cases it can crack power equipment; in places where power lines have been placed underground, heat has sometimes been shown to buckle pavement, which could damage the underlying lines.
She noted that extreme heat can also hinder energy production, particularly at coal plants or nuclear power plants that rely on cold water from rivers to regulate internal temperatures. “If rivers have gotten really hot, then those plants could be in big trouble.”
Rising energy costs coupled with rising demand ratchet up the stress on already overburdened communities, said Whitfield, who advocates for more equitable and accessible energy options in Georgia. She said that between 2022 and 2025, the average residential energy bill in Georgia is expected to rise $48 a month, a change she called “extraordinary.” Average bills are already around $130, largely due to demand for air conditioning.
In 2020, Georgia Power disconnected approximately 10% of residential utility customers because they could not pay their bills. Whitfield fears that trend will rise with the temperatures.
Georgia’s higher electricity rates reflect the hidden costs of energy sources like natural gas and nuclear, which constitute approximately three-fourths of the state’s net electricity generation. The Southern Environmental Law Center has been advocating for greater use of renewable sources like solar and wind. “Gas is a really volatile commodity,” Whitfield said, so gas bills can swing wildly, making it hard for families to budget.
Also boosting power costs in Georgia is a new reactor at the Vogtle nuclear power plant. According to the Associated Press, construction on this new reactor finished seven years after it was promised and $17 billion over budget. The Southern Environmental Law Center announced Aug. 30, 2023, that it had reached a settlement to offset the rate increase associated with Vogtle’s new construction. Although the agreement would redistribute approximately $4 billion in costs back to Georgia Power’s parent company, ratepayers are still left to cover about $7.6 billion associated with the project.
“Carbon-free energy for the future is obviously a good thing,” Whitfield said. “But the amount of money that was spent could have been spent on other, cheaper resources.”
Southern states have not given residents with low and moderate incomes many opportunities to manage their energy bills through the use of community solar, rooftop solar, or home improvements to boost efficiency.
“The people that have to pay the energy bills are in a really tough spot. Generally, at every turn we are advocating for moving faster to renewable energy because it will both mitigate impacts of climate change, but also allow people to be less beholden to the utility grid,” Whitfield said.
Improving energy efficiency could help
Advocates have long called for boosting energy efficiency by promoting replacement of older household appliances and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems with modern and more efficient versions as well as improving insulation to keep heating or cooling from escaping buildings.
“Not only are there these homes that are less efficient — so they might cost more to operate anyway — but also when you have these extreme temperatures, you’re using more electricity or more fuel to stay comfortable in your homes,” said Jennifer Amann, senior fellow at the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy’s buildings program. People can damage their health if they try to save money by limiting heating or cooling use, she pointed out.
A 2021 list by U.S. News showed that the bottom 10 states for energy efficiency are located in the South; Ecowatch in 2022 listed six of the bottom 10 states as Southern states.
Fortunately, as energy standards have improved, so has energy efficiency for most appliances. “One of the most effective efficiency policies that we have in this country is our appliance standards,” Amann said, noting that the efficiency of most appliances “has gotten better over time with prices staying relatively stable.” Still, the initial purchase price can put efficiency out of reach for low-income people with high energy burdens. And renters have a hard time getting landlords to upgrade equipment.
Some help came in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which expanded federal funding for the longtime weatherization assistance program run by the Department of Energy. This helps low-income households cut energy use by funding home improvements like repairing HVAC systems, repairing air leaks or cracks in the foundation, or adding insulation.
And the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act will soon roll out a rebate program for people interested in upgrading their home utilities and electrifying their homes. States have until August 2024 to apply for the funding. In the summer of 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy released guidance to ensure that low-income and Black and Brown households facing disproportionately high energy burdens are prioritized. There is also language requiring community engagement plans and future development of rebates for tribal nations.
“It’s really been a matter of getting resources to resource-constrained families,” Amann said.
These programs are not expected to get off the ground until next year or later for states that currently lack the means to distribute the rebates to the public. Politics may also prevent some communities from participating. Florida, for instance, experienced some of its highest temperatures on record this year, but Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced the state would not apply for about $377 million of federal funds for energy-efficiency rebates and electrification.
As summer winds down, it’s important to consider that energy burden is a year-round problem. Amann noted that winter storms in Texas also knocked out that state’s energy grid.
“I think we all have the extreme heat on our mind because we’re living with it right now. But you know, these extremes in weather are affecting people across the country.”
Learn more about extreme heat and energy burdens or support organizations working to address the issue.
Energy burden and energy efficiency