The Energy Burden: A Threat to America’s Most Distressed Communities

LIHEAP July Energy Burden.png

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

With increasing frequency, as higher and higher electric bills continue to eat up more and more of economically-distressed communities’ families monthly household budget month in and out, experts have begun looking  beyond the bill itself, harder and harder beneath the surface for the underlying reasons why.  Putting their own profile on Atlanta as one of the nation’s worst, with “has the fourth-highest energy burden in the nation, and the third-highest for low-income households. Atlanta’s median electricity burden is as high as 9.6 percent in some neighborhoods; the national average is three percent.”


In light of that kind of disparity at hand, local Georgia paper The Peoria Standard reported that with “more than 310,000 Georgia residents vulnerable to extreme heat, which is deadlier than any other weather-related hazard and causes more deaths on average annually than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes,” the perfect storm of economic and extreme weather conditions put vulnerable communities at even greater risk.  Putting a fine point on just how great a risk, the Standard’s reporting “High energy and water burdens limit affordability and the ability for residents to age in place, where they can benefit from economic development in their communities.  Amid Atlanta’s surging influx of residents, communities are also experiencing high levels of displacement due to rising housing costs, taxes and development.” 1

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior policy analyst Joseph Daniel points out that “Energy burden isn’t distributed equally across the US,” noting that “Appalachia lights up on the orange-colored map, with parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee all experiencing high energy burden. Why?  The energy burden issue is complicated. The data shows significant energy burdens felt by communities in the Gulf Coast and Southeast, with clusters spanning Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and north Florida, up through the Carolinas. These areas experience high energy burden driven mostly by electric bills.  The Northeast area also sees hot spots of decreased energy affordability, which is mostly driven by home heating expenses.” 2

Highlighting Atlanta’s experimental efforts to deal with this growing gap, in an effort to combat both rising energy and housing costs at the same time, the Standard put the spotlight on the Guaranteed Energy Savings Performance Contract, revealing that it “represents the largest single example of this initiative in the nation, demonstrating Atlanta’s continued national leadership in the energy-efficiency arena. The program seeks to maximize energy savings by improving energy, water and sewage efficiencies in city buildings.  Alleviating energy and water burdens in underserved communities is an opportunity to implement equitable solutions that will give traction to City of Atlanta efforts to meet its affordable-housing goals.” 3

Closing with a championing commentary on LIHEAP as a vital partner in the aforementioned goal set, the Standard argues that “no city can address these issues alone. Partnerships with the federal government are necessary and urgent. The federal government can help in several ways: It can expand funding for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and allow states to dedicate a higher percentage of funding through this program by default to weatherization to provide rescuing savings and protect vulnerable populations from rising energy costs.”