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Climate Change and Energy Insecurity Are Impacting Connecticut Residents’ Health

July 27, 2022
by Pam Johnson

The environmental impacts of climate change and a complex and often inefficient network of energy assistance programs are negatively affecting the health and well-being of Connecticut residents already burdened by the state’s soaring utility costs, according to a new report.

The report, “Energy Justice and Health in a Changing Climate,” which is based on focus groups with Connecticut residents, was issued today (July 27) by the Yale School of Public Health’s Center on Climate Change and Health, in partnership with the Vermont Law & Graduate School and Operation Fuel, a Connecticut-based nonprofit energy assistance and advocacy organization committed to equitable energy access. Student researchers from the Yale School of Public Health, Yale School of the Environment, and the Vermont Law & Graduate School authored the report.

The findings provide an intimate, and often heartbreaking, view of how some of the state’s more vulnerable residents are struggling to meet their household energy needs. It also outlines residents’ own recommendations for policy changes and other actions to address energy insecurity in Connecticut that will help create an equitable clean energy future.

“This research shows the issue of energy insecurity is also a health issue and puts it in the context of solutions that also need to take into account climate change,” said Laura Bozzi, director of programs for the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health and Yale’s faculty advisor on the report.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Connecticut’s retail electricity rates are the third highest in the country, behind Hawaii and Alaska. The average Connecticut household spends 11.8% of its income on energy, but the percentage is six to seven times higher for low-income residents, renters, and homeowners earning below 30% of the state median income.

For the study, the researchers defined energy insecurity as the “inability to meet basic household energy needs.” A household that spends more than 6 to 10% of its income on energy is considered energy-insecure, according to the study.

The report summarizes discussions with 22 Connecticut residents in focus groups conducted this spring. Participants were asked about their energy use, how they manage their energy bills, and whether they have participated in energy assistance programs. Their feedback offered a glimpse of what the residents are going through.

Said one resident: “All the time we sacrifice to keep the lights on. We can’t go without it. I had to choose between food and keeping the lights on. We didn’t get the food…but the next bill was coming around again…we didn’t know what we were going to do.”

Said another: “I have to use air conditioning in my house, sometimes even in winter, because I’m asthmatic and my kid is asthmatic. I’ve tried to go days without it…what happens is we both get sick.”

The researchers gathered first-hand accounts so that residents’ own voices could be heard and considered in policymakers’ discussions of state energy policy. “We’ve seen studies on broad numbers, such as those on Connecticut’s energy gap, but haven’t seen a study that's qualitative and actually reaches out to the people being affected by energy insecurity,” said Sarah Gledhill, one of the project’s leads and a master of environmental management candidate at Yale School of the Environment.

The focus groups represented the diversity of Connecticut’s population, including low-income residents, individuals from communities of color, older adults, persons with disabilities, and those living with chronic diseases. Their accounts shed new light on how health concerns intersect with energy insecurity by underscoring, as the report states, “the impact that temperature regulation has on medical conditions, financial stress, and mental health.”

The research also highlights how the reshaping of household energy use and rising energy costs, caused by climate change are disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups.

While roughly one-third of Connecticut households meet income eligibility for energy assistance funding, many study participants said they were not aware of ways to access current relief programs or had trouble navigating them. Some said they felt marginalized by the process.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been advocating on the regulatory and policy level for state agencies to come up with a streamlined process for folks, so they don’t have to go from one agency to another seeking state benefits,” said Operation Fuel’s Executive Director Brenda Watson. “Nobody wants to make an appointment and have to wait 30 days to be seen. And then when you go to be seen, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the benefit.”

Watson said the study also emphasizes the need for greater advocacy at the policy-making level to address inequities experienced by renters, who rely on landlords to maintain their homes, manage their energy sources, and install energy efficiencies.

Comments from participants in the study showed that energy-insecure residents often live with anxiety and stress, including whether their medical equipment will keep running or whether they will be able to refrigerate medicine and food at the required temperature. The study also found that many renters and tenants who live in poorly maintained buildings pay higher energy bills despite active efforts to minimize costs, ranging from unplugging appliances to stuffing newspapers under drafty doors. They also face greater health risks, such as exposure to carbon monoxide from running ovens for heat, water leaks, and mold.

“They were incredibly open with us. I feel honored to have those stories shared,” said Gledhill.

Some of the policy changes and actions recommended by the residents include:

  • Improving transparency on energy bills to show where costs are coming from
  • Providing low-income residents with free or reduced-priced energy-efficient LED light bulbs
  • Improving assistance programs by providing remote access, a 24-hour hotline, and regularly monitoring emails
  • Using schools to inform households about energy assistance programs
  • Adjusting the price of energy based on household income similar to the federal Section 8 housing program
  • Creating more bundled assistance programs that cover such things as food stamps, energy assistance, housing, and other needs

The “Energy Justice and Health in a Changing Climate” report is a project of the “Clinic in Climate Justice, Law, and Public Health,” a course offered jointly between Vermont Law School (VLS), Yale School of Public Health (YSPH), and the Yale School of the Environment (YSE). Joining Gledhill as project leads were Jhena Vigrass and Epongue Ekille, from YSE; Erika-Ann Kim, from YSPH; and Kimberly Mashke and Olivia St Pierre, from VLS.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on July 26, 2022