Wykeisha Howe and her eight children lost their home in 2018, sold by her landlord as Atlanta’s BeltLine development project attracted luxury developments and sharp increases in home values. After months of homelessness, Howe mustered up enough money to rent a new home, but the stability didn’t last long before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted her income and spurred a historic rise in the cost of living.
It wasn’t just the rent. One of the most significant drivers of that increased cost of living has been a sharp rise in monthly utility bills. Howe saw neighbors struggle throughout Atlanta’s historically Black communities.
“When your rent gets higher by $300 and your utilities go up an extra $300, you will lose your home,” she said.
Howe found government and community resources to offset the rising cost of utility bills, including federal funds that flooded in during COVID lockdowns to help struggling families. She spent much of the pandemic directing her neighbors to access those resources and helped neighbors get more efficient light bulbs.
“It’s been stressful as hell trying to manage between taking care of family, buying groceries, and personal problems, but I’ve seen the power of community,” she said.
Still, the burden of rising utilities is hitting families hard nationwide. Across the country, the average price of natural gas for residential use rose 21% between 2016 and 2021, based on federal data. This winter, many areas are seeing astronomical increases, with gas bills projected to jump 145% in Southern California in one year.
In Atlanta, gas and electricity bills have risen by at least 20% since 2019, according to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In Georgia, residents paid 37% more than the U.S. average on monthly gas bills between 2018 and 2021, the seventh-highest rate in the nation during that time.
The rise in prices has led to a substantial spike in utility shutoffs, according to a new report. While many states instituted utility shutoff moratoriums early in the pandemic, the research found that the number of electric shutoffs jumped by 29%, and gas shutoffs spiked by 76%, in the first 10 months of 2022 compared to 2021. The report — compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Energy and Policy Institute, and BailoutWatch — found that 4.2 million households had their electricity or gas shutoff in the first 10 months of 2022.
Black folks across the Midwest and South have been strongly impacted by shutoffs and the country’s growing utility debt. Since 2019, the average American family’s utility debt has doubled, with U.S. families behind on roughly $16 billion worth of utility bills as of August 2022. The three companies with the largest number of shutoffs — Exelon Corp., the Southern Co., and DTE Energy — serve customers in predominantly Black Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit.
The impact on Black Americans is compounded by policies such as redlining and segregation that have left Black people living in outdated housing structures that lack energy efficiency and in areas facing increased weather disasters, experts said. Studies have shown that although Black Americans are more energy efficient than white Americans, Black households spend 43% more of their income on energy costs than white households.
Shelby Green, co-author of the shutoffs report and a research fellow with the Energy Policy Institute, says these inequities make it harder for Black people to stay housed at all, let alone have access to dependable, safe housing.
“When Black communities are disproportionately unable to pay their most basic, most essential bill — their utility bill — that means that they’re already at a disadvantage economically,” Green said. “So they don’t have enough money to save for a better house, put their children through school, and they do not have the political power to sway policies in their favor.”
Rising production and profits
There are several factors driving the rise in utility costs and increased shutoffs. While inflation has impacted prices in nearly all elements of the economy, among the biggest causes of the rise in utility prices have been the war in Ukraine and the surge in the country’s use of natural gas.
The U.S. is the world’s largest natural gas producer, extracting more of the fossil fuel than the next two highest-producers combined. While that massive supply has sent natural gas wholesale prices plummeting in the past, rising demand from other countries and severe winter weather has caused them to spike again. On top of that, the cost of the infrastructure that companies have built to store and transport all that natural gas is also often passed on to consumers.
As the country’s use of the fossil fuel rises, utility companies have made record profits. Since the onset of the pandemic, executives from the country’s top 12 utility companies have been paid a record $5.9 million per year on average. The report found that redistributing just 1% of profits from these companies would have prevented all of their utility shutoffs between January 2020 and October 2022.
“Profit-driven utility companies are cutting off families’ basic human rights — electricity and heat — while actually returning billions to their shareholders and executives,” said Selah Goodson Bell, an energy justice campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Goodson Bell underscored that this rise in company profits and shutoffs for customers has occurred during an “ongoing public health threat” and increased exposure to extreme weather.
“As oil and gas companies have exacerbated climate change-induced extreme weather, they’re also exacerbating these spikes in energy bills and making it less likely for communities to be resilient and have access to reliable power during disasters,” he said.
Across the country, utility companies, including Exelon Corp., the Southern Co., and DTE Energy, have raised monthly bills in order to pay for new energy infrastructure that has been built during the pandemic. Since 2020, state and county public works commissions have routinely approved rate hikes for companies to recoup the millions of dollars companies have spent to build new gas plants and gas distribution lines.
Production of natural gas has nearly doubled since 2005, and companies and pro-fossil fuel groups have spent millions of dollars to frame the menthane-based fuel as a clean energy source. It has been branded as a bridge from the country’s over-dependence on coal and oil to a green future full of wind and solar farms.
However, studies have shown that the amount of methane — among the most potent climate-warming greenhouse gases — lost during the production and transportation of natural gas is harmful to the environment and public health. A June report by environmental research groups found that recent gas pipeline leaks in the U.S. have caused nearly $4 billion in damages, killed 122 people, and released 26.6 billion cubic feet of fuel as methane or carbon dioxide.
Anastasia Gordon, energy and transportation policy manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, says the increase in gas production is of unique concern for Black communities, especially those near the Gulf Coast, where many of these new natural gas processing facilities have been authorized. These communities are being “set up” to be “impacted by the fossil fuel industry and being sacrificed for generations to come,” she said.
Ways to save
There’s a lot that homeowners and residents can do to minimize rising utility expenses. You can start with a home energy assessment, which helps determine how much energy your home uses and which parts of your home are most energy inefficient. Depending on where you live and the size of your home, a professional assessment will run you anywhere from $100 to $600. But you can also conduct one yourself. The U.S. Department of Energy has an assessment explainer here.
There are a lot of things you can do around your home to conserve energy: switching to LED lighting, unplugging appliances when they’re not in use, and sealing up leaks to trap heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. You also can make sure you’re only getting charged for the electricity you used by comparing the meter outside your home to the reading on your utility bill. If you’re unsure how to do this, the U.S. Department of Energy has a helpful explainer here. If the amount on your meter is lower than the one on your bill, then you’re most likely being overcharged.
In the coming years, switching from gas to electric appliances could help save your household money on energy bills. In November, the Biden administration allocated $250 million to help households switch from gas to electric appliances, and in the coming months, the money will be shelled out through state-run programs. Without government support, the switch could cost households anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.
If you’re looking for a more immediate solution, there are local and federal resources available for paying utility bills:
- Low-Income High Energy Assistance Program: LIHEAP assists low-income households with their heating and cooling energy costs, bill payment assistance, and energy-related home repairs.
- Homeowner Assistance Fund: The Homeowner Assistance Fund prevents mortgage delinquencies and defaults, foreclosures, loss of utilities or home energy services, and displacement of homeowners experiencing financial hardship.
- Emergency Rental Assistance: The Emergency Rental Assistance program makes funding available to assist households that are unable to pay rent or utilities.
- Pandemic Emergency Assistance Fund for Utility Assistance: The Pandemic Emergency Assistance Fund supports needy families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and by unusually high heating costs.