Learn about energy poverty in the U.S.: what it is, just how many people suffer from it, and how you can create change.

Think about the last winter storm you braved. How excited were you to arrive home and walk in the door to a warm, cozy room, maybe a mug of hot chocolate and even a hot bath? Or the last time your town experienced a heat wave, how grateful were you for fans or air conditioners that allowed you to sleep comfortable and concentrate on your work? What if you couldn’t afford access to either?

Believe it or not, more than one in five households in the U.S. face this challenge.

In the United States, we shine the light on a lot of issues that plague our country. We discuss political disagreement and food shortages, economic downturns and homelessness, taxes and healthcare—but among those broad topics, we hardly utter words that are vital to over 30 percent of the people living within our bounds: energy poverty in the U.S.

In this post, we explain what energy poverty is, shine a light on how expansive an issue it has become, and share steps people are taking (and you can take as well!) to make a difference.

What is Energy Poverty?

If you’ve never heard the term, “energy poverty,” before, you’re not alone.

Though energy poverty, also referred to as “fuel poverty,” dramatically affects a substantial percentage of our population—and other countries’ populations, too—it’s not an issue that’s frequently discussed.

Energy poverty is essentially the condition by which a household is unable to afford to power their home to create a safe, warm, secure place. Unfortunately, energy poverty could be the result of a combination of factors, like low household income, unaffordable energy prices, or the insufficient heating and insulation standards of where someone lives.

Energy poverty doesn’t just mean that a family or individual can’t keep the lights on in their home. An inability to pay for energy can have serious health effects, especially during frigid winters and incredibly hot summers or in exceptionally damp environments.

But of course, this affects people in other ways, too. Energy poverty can dramatically decrease the quality of life someone leads, resulting in negative impacts on not only physical health but also mental and psychological health. This is because it can lead to increased social isolation, lower likelihood of attaining an education, reduced economic productivity, and so much more. In other words, energy poverty can truly affect all facets of a person’s life.

Who is Impacted by Energy Poverty?

The U.S. has one of the most robust economies in the world. So you would think that anyone with a home, whether owned or rented, has adequate heating/cooling and light, right?

Think again.

Almost 1/3 of U.S. Homes Are Energy Poor

In 2018, over 31 percent of U.S. households struggled to pay their energy bills, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

That means that almost a third of households in the United States have had to reduce or forego food, medicine, and other necessities in order to pay an energy bill. The report states, “of the 25 million households that reported forgoing food and medicine to pay energy bills, 7 million faced that decision nearly every month.”

Further, over 10 percent of households in the US keep their homes at unhealthy or unsafe temperatures, because they could not afford to properly heat their homes.

Let that sink in for a moment.

That means people—and, as the report specifies, especially racial minorities—had to give up food, medicine, and other absolute necessities just to keep the lights on or the heat going in their home. And of those people, some still couldn’t keep their home at a healthy temperature.

Energy Poverty is Regressive

When economics refer to policies, there are two types: progressive policies, which place a higher burden as you move up the income ladder; and regressive policies, which place a higher burden on lower income families. Regressive issues are particularly concerning because they are impacting people already struggling to meet basic life necessities like putting food on the table.

As this map shows, energy poverty in the U.S. is more extensive than you might think.
Energy poverty in the U.S. impacts households already lacking in other life necessities. Source: The Union of Concerned Scientists

Energy Poverty Exists In Other Developed Nations

As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that the U.S. isn’t the only developed country with citizens struggling to gain access to basic necessities like heat and light. In the United Kingdom (UK), energy poverty affects an estimated 3.5 million households (nearly 13 percent of their population).

According to National Energy Action, a UK-based non-profit organization, about 23,000 more people in England and Wales died during the winter as compared to the other three seasons. And about 30 percent of those deaths were attributed to homes that were too cold.

So while energy poverty—inability to pay for climate control, lighting, and anything else your utility bill might cover (such as gas-stoves)—is a problem in the US, it is just as much if not even more of an issue in other countries around the world.

Bringing Awareness to Energy Poverty

As people become more aware of energy poverty at home and abroad, a movement has sprung to life in order to bring attention to both energy poverty in the U.S. and, more broadly, the importance of living in a warm, safe home.

Why join the movement?

Because, like we said before, for all you know, energy poverty could impact families in your community. And beyond that, it certainly affects people all over the world—not just in the UK, and certainly not just in the US.

How You Can Help

The first way you can make a difference in the fight against energy poverty in the U.S. is to support governments—both federal and local—to implement policies that could help make a difference. Write to your local, state, and federal representatives to express concern!

If that’s not your style, there are many other ways you can act to affect change:

Educate Yourself

There are a number of very informative energy poverty action guides available. Dive into one (or more!) tobecome super well-versed in how to spot energy poverty and what you can do to help remedy it. Then (you guessed it), spread the love and make sure everyone in your life has access to energy poverty action guides.

Literally Take Action to Raise Awareness

Share this post on social media, talk to your friends, educate a neighbor, set up a table outside your local library—just do something to spread the word about energy poverty. Odds are, there are people out there who could have the power to help you enact change that simply don’t know energy poverty is a thing. It sounds silly to say, but energy poverty just isn’t on many people’s radars. So help change that by spreading the word!

Start a Local Non-Profit/Fund to Help People in Need

You probably don’t need to look that deep into your community to find families or people who are struggling with energy poverty (it’s an issue that affects people all across the United States). Partner with a few friends and either find a local non-profit that helps remedy these issues or create your own. It can be as simple as a GoFundMe with a clear message or as complex as creating an entire organization dedicated to tackling this issue. Big or small, any type of effort makes a difference.

Donate Your Time or Money to Home Improvement

If you don’t suffer from energy poverty (and we hope you don’t), it can be hugely meaningful to learn how to help other people remedy their home’s energy efficiency issues (like inadequate insulation) and provide your hours and services to tackling those problems alongside them. Whether you donate money or your Saturday, providing some type of resource to help an insufficient house or apartment better insulate their home could make an enormous difference in specific circumstances.

Looking for more ideas? Check out some of these inspiring ways to take action from ClimateJust.Org—though it’s a UK based site, there are plenty of actionable ideas that you can take on and implement in your community (no matter where you live!)

Time to Take Action

No matter how you choose to raise awareness, we encourage you to do something this February 15th and beyond to kickstart the effort to eradicate energy poverty in the US, starting with your community!

Have an innovative idea on how to help with energy poverty? Leave us a comment in our comment section below! For more tips, tricks, and advice on energy efficiency, subscribe to the WattDoesItUse blog! We’re regularly updating this space with info just like this to help keep you informed.