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Sizzling heat -- and searing electric bills -- are expected this summer

Sizzling summer temperatures are expected to drive electric bills higher this year.  Nearly one in six families are already behind on their utility bills.
Brendan Smialowski
Sizzling summer temperatures are expected to drive electric bills higher this year. Nearly one in six families are already behind on their utility bills.

It's shaping up to be another sizzling summer. And that means keeping cool is essential — and could be more costly.

Rosie Garcia is already feeling the heat in Mesa, Ariz., where temperatures have climbed into the triple digits.

“There is no cooling off," Garcia says. "I don’t open the door in the evenings like I used to. My doctor says stay out of the heat. And I’m going to listen to the doctor.”

Garcia, who turns 70 this week, mostly stays indoors during the daytime and runs her air conditioner around the clock.

"If I turn it off, then I get up sweating at two in the morning," she says. "I know I have to turn it back on."

The electric bills for Garcia’s small, two-bedroom duplex run between $250 and $300 a month during the hot season, which in Arizona lasts five months a year. It's an early warning of what many Americans can expect in the coming months.

The National Energy Assistance Directors Association predicts the average family will pay $719 in electric bills from June through September — an increase of 7.9% from a year ago. Higher temperatures are the main culprit.

"If the average temperature was 80 degrees, you wouldn’t necessarily have to turn on the air conditioning, or not very much. But now we’re getting to 85-, 90-, 95-degree temperatures," says Mark Wolfe, the association's executive director. "You have to turn it on for not just comfort levels, but also for health reasons.”

Extreme heat kills more people in the U.S. than any other weather-related disaster. And with climate change sparking more dangerous heat waves, air conditioning is no longer a luxury but a life-saving necessity.

Help with energy bills is harder to come by

Garcia qualified for a federal subsidy that helps to cover her electric bills. But many people are not so lucky. Nearly one in six households around the country are already behind on their utility payments. Low-income families are hit hardest, since energy gobbles up a bigger share of their household budget.

“There’s an economic divide here that lower-income families are less likely to have access to adequate cooling," Wolfe says.

The National Weather Service is projecting a hotter-than-normal summer in most parts of the United States. Meanwhile, Congress cut $2 billion this year from the program that's helping Garcia. Most of the available funds have already been spent subsidizing heating bills during the winter.

The Community Action Corporation of South Texas, which distributes federal energy assistance in 16 counties from Corpus Christi to Laredo, was overwhelmed with requests for help with utility bills this year. There wasn't nearly enough money to go around.

“The very first day that we opened in 2024, we got 52,000 phone calls," says Doug Hairgrove, who runs the corporation's energy program. "It knocked out our phone system.”

The available funds covered fewer than one out of ten eligible families. Some people got help from other sources, including local utilities. But the rest are struggling, as a changing climate brings hotter summers.

“Temperatures are right around 100 but we have very high humidity," Hairgrove says. "I’ve been almost all over the country and I don’t think there’s a more humid spot. Not even in Florida.”

Heat like that can be dangerous. Last year, the Arizona county where Rosie Garcia lives reported 645 heat-related deaths — a 52% increase from the year before.

"I was so ill from the heat I wouldn’t even go out anymore," Garcia recalls. "That’s why we need our utilities very bad."

Leaders of state energy assistance offices are urging the federal government to set aside more money to help people pay bills in the short run and to make investments — in things like weatherization and heat pumps — that will save energy in the long run.

They also argue that no one should have their power shut off over unpaid bills during the hottest time of the year. Seventeen states including Arizona and Texas have that prohibition now, but there's no such restriction in the rest of the country.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.