Writing and reporting by Jake Brown
Even with temperatures still scorching around the U.S. following what has been officially logged as the hottest summer on record in the history of the country, many states were already turning their attention toward the start of fall enrollment periods for the HEATING portion of their LIHEAP programs. Starting as early as many were in anticipation of higher application enrollments than ever, WAND 17 reported in traditionally-frigid Chicago that the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity’s Office of Energy Assistance – no doubt in part to make up ground from their embarrassing budget battle that ran through mid-summer, depriving some counties of virtually any LIHEAP funding – announced that the state’s 35 community action agencies would begin accepting heating applications on September 1st.
Funded as part of the stopgap funding plan signed into law by Governor Rauner earlier this summer, one prominent CAA director, Sharmin Doering of the Sangamon County Community Resources Center cautiously applauded the improvement over last fall, when the same protracted budget battle had delayed fall enrollment by 5 precious weeks to October 1st for Seniors and the Disabled, pushing general enrollment back to November 1st, leaving thousands quite literally out in the cold. Noting that the $670,000 the state’s CAAs were receiving this year was down 40% from last fall, resulting in 1000 less families helped by his organization alone, Doering understated that “it really put a hardship on a lot of families because by the time the general population was eligible, the weather had already been cold for about 45 days.”
With constituencies and advocate groups around the country calling in greater volume than ever on their elected officials to recognize that greater funding for LIHEAP was a matter of life and death for their communities’ most vulnerable households year-round, Electric Co-Op Today reported that on Capitol Hill, the message was being heard as The House Appropriations Labor-HHS Subcommittee proposed adding another $100 million in emergency funding to their upcoming Omnibus budget bill for FY2017. While prominent national advocacy organizations like the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) championed the effort, interim C.E.O. Jeffrey Connor was still pushing for the program to be funded at higher levels for the simple fact that “for people who cannot afford to pay for an unexpected spike in their energy costs in the winter or summer months, this program is a literal lifesaver. Americans in low-income or fixed-income situations struggle with tough decisions to adjust thermostats or adjust medications or other essentials. In order to provide the reliable support it was intended to bring to those tough situations, however, the program must be fully funded.”
The White House was pushing for the same spirit of robust investment in the sustainability and expansion of LIHEAP and other like-minded programs when they announced this summer plans for the Clean Energy Savings for All Americans Initiative as one of President Obama’s final green initiatives before leaving office. Driven by his commitment to “ensuring that every American family can choose to go solar and to cut their energy bills – and that every American community has the tools they need to tackle local air pollution and global climate change,” the White House Press Office laid out a vision where “through the Clean Energy Savings for All Initiative, the Administration will work to ensure that every household has options to choose to go solar and put in place additional measures to promote energy efficiency.”
Among the “key components of the initiative that the Administration is announcing,” the White House spotlighted LIHEAP – long one of the most reliable results-producing programs on the Hill – as one singled out for expanded investment, wherein “HHS and DOE are making it easier to use hundreds of millions of dollars for energy efficiency improvements by providing technical assistance to Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) grantees on their ability to access 15 – 25 percent of their annual LIHEAP funding for low cost energy efficiency improvements, including renewable energy.”
Shining more sun on LIHEAP, the Clean Energy Savings for All Americans Initiative would additionally make it “easier for Low Income households to access hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for renewable energy investments,” proudly highlighting of their creative plan to essentially expand the current ceiling for the program’s budget that “the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides, on average more than $3 billion a year to communities across the country and includes a provision that allows LIHEAP grantees to access 15 – 25 percent of their annual funding for low cost weatherization and energy efficiency improvements. Today, we are announcing technical assistance to LIHEAP grantees to increase their ability to use this funding to support the deployment of renewable energy.”
Around the country, State Houses were working toward the same end to release as much “emergency” ear-marked funding as possible to help with what was for cold-weather states like Pennsylvania anticipated to be a record application season, with PA Dept. of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas noting of the $322 supplemental cash disbursed to 114,000 older Pennsylvanians throughout the state last winter that “these supplemental funds will help older Pennsylvanians, individuals with a disability, families with children, and crisis grant recipients to pay their remaining heating bills and even help with their heat during the next winter months.”
For customers in neighboring Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, one of the region’s largest power providers, Delmarva Power, sounded a similar siren at the top of August that “although it is still summertime, we encourage any customers considering LIHEAP this winter to call now,” with Delmarva Power Region President Gary Stockbridge encouraging early enrollment for those in need to “discuss program options exchange feedback with a LIHEAP representative and see if it is appropriate for your household before the cold weather sets in.” The Washington Sun shined a similar light on programs around the Nation’s capital available to the city and its surrounding suburbs’ residents in need, quoting utility Pepco’s regional president Donna Cooper, who observed that “we are fortunate to have a wide range of programs throughout the Pepco region that offer our customers financial assistance with their electric bills. We thank our legislators for their continued support of these critical programs and encourage residents of the District of Columbia and Maryland to take full advantage of the available financial assistance.”
New Jersey, well ahead of the frost settling in on the Garden state, was already putting out the word mid-summer about approaching fall enrollment start dates, seeking to give both their state’s CAAs and well as enrolling households as much advance planning time as possible, Bayonne mayor Jimmy Davis announced in August that the Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation – circa funding courtesy of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and LIHEAP – would begin taking applications for heating assistance at the top of September, noting that in addition to traditional electric bills, the funding would help the state’s more rural communities where natural gas, oil, and other deliverable fuels were the norm, highlighting as well the helping hand of the Universal Service Fund (USF), which the N.J. Board of Public Utilities had established to help low-income households pay for their electric and natural gas costs.
Solar Energy was also taking the fight to the heat as it became through weatherization funding more and more available across the entire economic neighborhood, with the announcement of the innovative Energy Master Plan by the statehouse, aiming to make it “easier for electric power companies to initiate universal solar projects that will benefit both the environment and customers,” according to WeStandforEnergy.com. The advocate highlighted major utility provider PSE&G’s participation in the Solar 4 All program as another progressive endeavor designed to “transform dormant landfills and brownfields across the state into universal solar farms. These farms increase the state’s solar capacity and provide more cost-effective solar power to all customers” upon completion by 2021.
Down on the Jersey Shore, though the sun was still keeping the beaches busy, economically–devastated Atlantic City, a grateful Vince Maione, Atlantic City Electric’s regional President, thanked the state on behalf of his utility’s beneficiary customers as part of his reminder to that constituency to apply as early as possible for winter assistance, noting that “in New Jersey, we are fortunate to have a wide range of programs that offer our customers financial assistance with their electric bills. We thank the legislators for their continued support of these critical programs and encourage residents of South Jersey to use the financial assistance available to them.”
Across the country in the equally-hard hit city of Flint, Michigan, positive headlines were made for a change when Flint Neighborhoods United announced to the hundreds of households throughout the city that had undergone emergency lead reduction to deal with their deadly metropolitan water crisis, that the Genesee County Community Action Resource Department (GCCARD) “received funding from the State of Michigan to replace water heaters for the City of Flint residents that qualify,” utilizing LIHEAP dollars to help fund the effort.
Pushing a similar agenda toward energy independence in Knoxville, Tennessee, CAC Housing and Energy Services Director Jason Estes highlighted his state’s aggressive support for weatherization, adding that to be successful, a partnership was truly required of the members of those households being weatherized as well, wherein “I think education is huge I think it’s probably 100%. It’s a life changing way you have to really change the way you do things. If you don’t, no matter how much you replace things you’re still going to have high bills. If you can change your behavior, it’s really big. Even when the air conditioner is on and they’re raising it up, use of fans would be really good. They can have those on even when the air conditioner is running and even when the AC goes out, fans will still circulate the air.” Jennifer Alldredge, Program Manager for the Alliance to Save Energy, added that heading into the winter months, “For every degree up in the summer or down in the winter, aiming for that 68 and 78, you’ll save about 1% every single degree.”
Deeper into the South, LIHEAP-dependant states like Georgia, who battled extreme heat and cold weather year-round, announced they had spent a record $49 million in assistance for residents throughout 2016, while in Alabama, Governor Bentley declared August his state’s official LIHEAP Action Month. According to reporting by the Alabama Political Reporter, the Governor was encouraging “a heightened awareness of energy poverty in communities throughout the state. We look to government to do those things that we cannot alone do – to build roads and bridges and schools, to protect and defend us, to educate our children. But we also look to government to help those who have needs greater that those we alone can meet. LIHEAP is a shining example of such a program.”
Underscoring such a spotlight was necessary given the astonishing statistic that among the state’s most impoverished communities, “a study by Inside Energy, using census and federal energy data, found that in many Alabama counties, annual energy costs approach or exceed 50 percent of the income of a low-income household,” before pointing to the dangerous consequence that “demand for the assistance of (the program) is consistently high, the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition estimates that 87 percent of Alabama’s LIHEAP-eligible household aren’t served because of the limited funds.”