By Allison Crawford
Kentucky has some of the nation’s lowest electricity rates on average, but energy bills aren’t affordable for every Kentuckian.
To address this, in 2021 the Office of Energy policy gathered committed individuals from state agencies, utility companies, and nonprofits and launched its Energy Affordability Work Group.
“Energy affordability is a complex issue, and it is only through collaboration that we will be able to build adequate solutions,” said workgroup coordinator Ashley Runyon. “We are grateful for our partners in the nonprofit, business, and government sectors that are showing up and putting action to the commitment that we all have to better serving under-resourced citizens.”
Most people think of price when they think about affordability, but price is just one part of the equation. Energy costs depend on both price and how much energy someone consumes.
When household energy costs begin to outpace household income and people must choose between energy and other necessities, affordability becomes an issue. The term energy burden refers to the percentage of household income spent on energy bills and is the common way to understand energy affordability.
In 2020, 27 percent of U.S. households experienced energy affordability issues and nearly 20 percent reported reducing or forgoing food or medicine to pay energy bills, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In Kentucky, the average energy burden is three percent. However, that number climbs higher than 10 percent in some regions. In 42 counties, households making 60 percent or less of the state median income have an energy burden averaging between 13 and 17 percent.
According to a report put together for the U.S. Department of Energy, high energy burdens affect all aspects of life, including housing, health, work, and education. When energy is unaffordable, families might rely on heating, cooling, and cooking equipment that is more likely to cause carbon monoxide poisoning, infection, asthma, and other respiratory problems.
Under-resourced households coping with medical conditions that require electricity for treatment may also end up sacrificing their health when energy is unaffordable. These adverse health effects can lead to medical bills that only make the energy affordability problem worse.
The Energy Affordability Work Group has given utility companies training on United Way’s 2-1-1 directory and the state’s Kynect Benefits website so they can help customers who are struggling to afford their energy bills find assistance.
The work group also has developed the Energy Affordability Dashboard so nonprofits, utilities, and government agencies have access to the data that will help them develop a common understanding of community needs and leverage available funding to address those needs.
Although the work group is making progress, Runyon says there is still plenty to be done, including making under-resourced populations aware of assistance programs. Communication barriers can include a lack of access to technology, mistrust in government officials, and little interaction with assistance programs.
Runyon says there are gaps in assistance programs where individuals that need services are not covered. The work group is looking for ways to fill those gaps in ways that are inclusive and equitable, she said.
“Some other states are beginning to take a more holistic approach to understanding how energy impacts all parts of life. This is allowing for new, more creative partnerships to form. My hope would be we are able to begin going down this path as well,” Runyon said.
Looking to the future, Runyon hopes the group will be able to pursue solutions like helping owners of manufactured homes upgrade their housing to be more energy efficient, utilizing data to determine programs that will make the most impact for energy burdened communities, creating a framework for more intentional community engagement, and continuing to enhance methods for connecting people to available resources.
The work group meets five times per year and Runyon invites anyone interested in participating to email her at email@example.com.