Rural households across the United States spend a disproportionately high share of their income on energy bills — about 40 percent more than their metropolitan counterparts, according to a new report released today by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) coalition. The problem is most glaring in the East and Southeast, and among low-income households across all regions.
Overall, rural households have a median energy burden — the percentage of a household’s income spent on home energy bills for needs such as air conditioning, heating, lighting, appliances, and cooking — of 4.4 percent, which is one-third higher than the national burden. Those with low incomes have a median energy burden of 9 percent, which is almost three times that of higher-income counterparts. In several rural regions, this burden exceeds 15 percent for one of every four low-income households.
In addition to income level, other factors may increase energy burdens, including a home’s physical condition, a household’s ability to invest in energy-efficient equipment and upgrades, and the availability of efficiency programs and incentives that put energy-saving technologies within reach.
Other rural residents hit particularly hard include elderly, nonwhite, and renting households, as well as those living in multifamily and manufactured homes. The East South Central, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions have the highest median rural energy burdens, at 5.1 percent.
The report, The High Cost of Energy in Rural America: Household Energy Burdens and Opportunities for Energy Efficiency, is the first to focus on the energy burdens shouldered by those living in rural America.
“High energy costs can place a significant financial burden on rural families, forcing them to make difficult trade-offs between paying energy bills and buying food or medicine,” said Lauren Ross, local policy program director at ACEEE and lead report author. “Compounding the issue, many low- to moderate-income families live in homes that need repairs or improvements to meet basic health and safety standards. Energy efficiency upgrades help to lower energy bills for these families, while also mitigating indoor health risks that can contribute to cases of asthma, respiratory problems, heart disease, arthritis, and rheumatism.”
“It’s unfortunate that rural Americans are bearing such a large energy burden, but the good news is that with the right programs and support from utilities and others, energy efficiency can go a long way toward solving this problem,” said Khalil Shahyd, senior policy advocate with the Resilient Communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council where he works with the Energy Efficiency for All coalition. “It also makes homes more comfortable and avoids the power plant emissions that dirty our air, harm our health, and warm our climate.”
Energy efficiency programs that address high energy burdens can also provide benefits beyond energy savings, including education and employment opportunities, economic development, and improved public health. Energy efficiency can effectively and equitably be brought to rural communities by expanding current low-income program offerings, exploring no- and low-risk efficiency financing options, incorporating regional workforce development initiatives, and building relationships with other area service providers to strengthen program delivery.
Rural households make up roughly 16 percent of all U.S. households and are spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area. Three-quarters of rural homes are single-family units. In some regions, more than 20 percent of rural households live in manufactured housing. About a quarter of all rural households are renters, the majority of them in single-family housing.