Even when the temperature soars into the 90s, Linda Morris won’t turn on her air conditioning until she feels she’s about to faint.
Instead, the retired postal worker tries to escape the heat in the unfinished basement of her Hickory Hills, Illinois, home. She brought down a chair so she can read there.
And, to avoid using her stove while upstairs, she makes sandwiches and warms up food in the microwave.
Morris, 65, already had her power shut off in June – when the thermometer in the Chicago area hit at least 90 degrees on seven days – after falling behind on her payments. She was forced to use savings to settle the nearly $500 tab, which she can’t do again since she’s on a fixed income after retiring last year.
“You can’t afford to turn your air on anymore. That’s very sad,” said Morris, who is also staying home more because of high gas prices. “Any other summers, I will turn my air on. But this summer, it’s just way too expensive.”
Heat waves have impacted the vast majority of the US during the first half of the summer, forcing Americans to deal with sweltering conditions. More than 100 million people were under heat alerts on Tuesday.
High-temperature spells have become more frequent and intense with each passing decade, and they last longer than they did before, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But many people have had to curtail their air conditioning usage to try to keep their electricity bills in check, as they also struggle with the spike in price for food, gas and other essentials.
Americans’ electric bills are expected to increase by 20% to an average of $540 for this summer, compared to the same period last year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
But even if people limit their usage, they may still get bigger bills. That’s because residential electricity prices are rising at a faster pace this summer than in many previous years, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The increase is driven in part by the surge in cost of natural gas, which is used to generate electricity. Natural gas prices jumped following a production slump during the pandemic, as well as shortages due to the war in Ukraine.
Air conditioning, however, is not merely for comfort. It’s a necessity for many people, particularly those in poor health. More than 700 people in the US die from heat-related causes every year, on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The deaths are generally considered preventable.
“Extreme heat events are deadly, and they are increasingly frequent,” said Stephen Walls, a clean building advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Cooling assistance could help avoid hundreds of deaths per year.”
Lack of federal assistance
But there’s far less government aid available to help people afford to cool their homes, compared to heating them in the winter, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, helps low-income Americans pay their heating and cooling bills. The money is distributed through states and local community groups, but only 34 states and the District of Columbia offer cooling aid to their residents. All states run programs to help people keep the heat on in the winter.
What’s more, just 15% of the federal funds is used to cover cooling costs.
Congress poured $4.5 billion into LIHEAP from the American Rescue Plan, adding to the program’s $3.8 billion allocation for the current fiscal year. But it still isn’t enough to meet the need for heating alone, much less cooling.
“The core problem is we don’t have enough money to run a robust cooling program,” Wolfe said, noting that the importance of this hasn’t “registered yet” in Congress.
Alice Gachuzo-Colin of Springdale, Arkansas, turned to a local nonprofit agency last month to ask for help paying her electric bill so her power wouldn’t be shut off in the middle of the night. But she was told it had no available funds and to try again later.
So she had to drain nearly all her savings to pay the $256 bill. And for July, the tab is $314, which she has had to point out to her three children.
“Yesterday, there was a big, huge meltdown in my house because my kids were like ‘I’m hot,’ and I’m like ‘Y’all, the light bill is 300 and something dollars,’” Gachuzo-Colin, 43, who works as a personal banker at a local bank, said in mid-July.
Typically, she pays $160 or $170 a month during the summer.
Gachuzo-Colin tries to limit the family’s air conditioning usage, but it’s tough when the temperature often exceeds 90 degrees and her 13-year-old daughter’s asthma worsens in the heat. The Springdale area is on track to have its fourth-warmest summer on record.
Electric companies have expanded their flexible billing and payment programs during the pandemic to help customers stay current, Adam Cooper, senior director for customer solutions at the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association for investor-owned electric companies, wrote in an email. Many allow customers to enter balance billing programs, where they pay the same amount every month. This smooths out seasonal spikes in usage.
The companies also reach out to consumers suffering from financial hardships and educate them about assistance programs, such as LIHEAP, Cooper said.
But repayment plans don’t always relieve the financial strain on families. Minneapolis resident Scott Norcross entered one recently so his power wouldn’t be shut off after he fell a few hundred dollars behind in payments, mainly from using the air conditioner over the last few months. He now has to shell out around $100 on top of his monthly bill, which he says is three times more than it used to be prior to the pandemic.
“Our electric bill had just gone higher and higher and higher,” said Norcross, 55, who is disabled and is affected by the heat. “We can’t really afford the extra payment, but we have to do something if we want to keep the electric on.”
Norcross, whose wife is a personal care assistant and older son works in retail, applied for energy aid but was told his family’s income was $800 over the limit.
So the couple and their two young adult sons sit in their car and run the air conditioner for 20 to 30 minutes to cool off a few times a day, depending on how hot it is. The temperature climbed to at least 90 degrees on Tuesday, which would be the 13th time it’s hit that level this year.
Only 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, have protections that prevent utility companies from turning off the power of people who fall behind in their bills. But they only take effect when temperatures hit a certain level or when a heat advisory is in place, Wolfe said. For Nevada and Delaware, for instance, that threshold is 105 degrees.
This compares to 33 states and the District of Columbia that prevent utilities from shutting off the heat during the winter.
Nearly all states and the District of Columbia provide some protection for residents with certified medical conditions, though many only delay the disconnection for 30 days.
Still, many people whose health is compromised by hot temperatures don’t qualify.
Though he suffers from a thyroid condition that makes him very sensitive to heat, Walter Protheroe now sets his air conditioner at 78 degrees, instead of a more comfortable 72 degrees. That keeps his electric bill affordable since he’s disabled and living on a fixed income.
But it means the 64-year-old Houston resident has to spend most of the day lying down on the couch. He can only take short walks outside twice a week, instead of his daily one-mile stroll, because he can’t return to a cool home in a city contending with its hottest summer to date.
A former research engineer, Protheroe thought his June bill would be around $90, but it was $125. He’s expecting to have to shell out about $150 this month and probably more than $170 in August if the heat continues.
“I just deal with it the best I can,” said Protheroe. “It’s just too expensive to run the air conditioner that much.”
CNN Meteorologist Taylor Ward contributed to this story.