Skip to Main Content

Roughly 4.8 million households reported that they were unable to pay at least one energy bill during the COVID-19 pandemic. As stay-at-home mandates were implemented, people spent more time at home, thus increasing energy usage, at a time when many experienced decreased income due to job loss and business closures.

While energy assistance programs offer relief for low-income groups, they often miss populations that exhibit energy-limiting behavior that puts them at risk of their pipes freezing in the winter, or of occupants getting heat stroke in the summer. Another vulnerable group that is missed are people whose past income might not reflect their current status. A recent study led by Destenie Nock, engineering and public policy students, and their collaborators examines how existing behaviors were changed during the course of the pandemic, and to what extent the changes impacted energy poverty.

“Energy poverty can manifest in many ways,” says Nock, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy and civil and environmental engineering. “One is through energy-limiting behavior, where households forgo comfort or safety indoors to save money on their heating and cooling bills. Another is households that spend a large portion of income on energy bills, but do so by giving up essential needs like food or medicine.”

Using a survey that collected information from residents of all income levels from Phoenix and Chicago, the study gauged subjective indicators of energy poverty by gathering information on perceptions of behavior, ability to cool home in the summer, and perceived tradeoff between energy consumption and other necessities.

Defined as the “inability or unwillingness to consume enough energy to reach a desired level of comfort,” energy-limiting behavior can put already marginalized groups at risk as they are more likely to face detrimental consequences in regards to safety or financial security.

The results indicated that in Chicago, lower- and middle-income groups, who were worse off to begin with, were disproportionately negatively affected by the pandemic when compared to higher income groups. Illinois opted to expand existing programs, rather than creating new emergency programs, which may have limited the knowledge and entry into these programs.   

In Chicago, despite having less than 25 percent of Phoenix's annual cooling degree days (days with average temperature above 65 degrees), there was a comparable number of respondents who reported either almost never being able to adequately cool or only able to sometimes cool their homes adequately even before the onset of the pandemic.

Phoenix respondents reported that the pandemic negatively impacted their ability to cool their homes more often than Chicago respondents. This could be a reflection of Illinois having summer moratoria in place to prevent disconnections during heat waves. However, Illinois does not offer cooling assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). While moratorium policies can be helpful during warm weather months, they have the potential to put households into debt and increase the risk of disconnection after the moratorium ends.

More careful considerations should be placed on income-eligible requirements for assistance programs and the seasons in which we provide assistance to households.

Destenie Nock, Assistant Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Engineering & Public Policy

“More careful considerations should be placed on income-eligible requirements for assistance programs, and the seasons in which we provide assistance to households. Summer heat can be just as dangerous as winter freezes,” says Nock.

Using the findings of this work, policymakers could consider expanding thresholds for income-based protection and assistance programs to include more moderate to middle income households, as well as take into account net income when evaluating program eligibility. Assistance programs could also consider factors such as level of insulation, appliance efficiency, and housing type in order to determine which type of energy assistance is best suited for particular households.