Household Energy Insecurity

Household energy insecurity

Millions of Americans are energy insecure, meaning they are uncertain about their ability to pay their energy bills. These individuals and households may face service shutoffs or endure otherwise poor living conditions (e.g., too cold, too hot, limited refrigeration, limited or no internet access, limited or impaired ability to use medical devices). While electric and gas utilities offer protections from service disconnections during certain months of the year or during certain weather conditions, shutoff protections vary widely across states and utilities. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated conditions of energy insecurity, but the problem is not new.

Over the past several years, the Energy Justice Lab has worked to understand the coping strategies individuals may use to manage their living conditions. Through various surveys and other methods, our team has identified contributing factors and made recommendations to improve living conditions. We track utility disconnection protections across place and time and evaluate the degree to which protections may prevent adverse health outcomes. We assess these protections and trends in the context of the changing climate, COVID-19 pandemic, and between jurisdiction and utility providers. How adequately do disconnection protections protect those that are most vulnerable?

Research Publications

Utility Disconnection Protections and Energy Insecurity

Temporary disconnection moratoria during the COVID-19 reduced rates of disconnection and other metrics of energy insecurity. Check out our infographic in collaboration with the Scholars Strategy Network!

"Utility disconnection protections and the incidence of energy insecurity in the United States," (T. Memmott, S. Carley, M. Graff, D. M. Konisky), iScience, (March 2023) 

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Persistent energy insecurity

A rich data set enables a thorough analysis of energy insecurity during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The persistence of household energy insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic," (D. M. Konisky, S. Carley, M. Graff, T. Memmott),Environmental Research Letters, (September 2022)

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Energy insecurity coping strategies

This study identifies how households handle the uncertainty of being cut off from power and suggests ways the government can help these vulnerable populations.

"Behavioral and financial coping strategies among energy-insecure households," (S. Carley, M. Graff, D. M. Konisky, T. Memmott; Edited by D. Massey), Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, (August 2022)

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Energy Insecurity: Urgent Need for Utility Disconnection Protections

Shield by Kmg Design from Noun Project (CCBY3.0)Millions of Americans are unable to pay their energy bills and face the risk of disconnection.

"Energy insecurity and the urgent need for utility disconnection protections," (S. Baker, S. Carley, D. M. Konisky), Energy Policy, (December 2021)

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Which households are energy insecure?

30% of respondents were unable to pay at least one energy bill over the course of a year; explore the connections between race and housing conditions.

"Which households are energy insecure? An empirical analysis of race, housing conditions, and energy burdens in the United States," (M. Graff, S. Carley, D. M. Konisky, T. Memmott), Energy Research & Social Science, (September 2021)

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Climate change and energy insecurity

Climate change will exacerbate the issue of energy insecurity.

"Climate Change and Energy Insecurity: A growing need for policy intervention," (M. Graff, D. M. Konisky, S. Carley, T. Memmott), Environmental Justice, (June 2021)

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Disparities in Energy Insecurity

Escalated sociodemographic disparities appear amid the COVID-19 crisis

"Sociodemographic disparities in energy insecurity among low-income households before and during the COVID-19 pandemic," (T. Memmott, S. Carley, M. Graff, D. M. Konisky), Nature Energy, (January 2021)

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Disconnection Policy and Vulnerable Populations

Climate Change by Nesialook Creator from Noun Project (CCBY3.0)Seemingly minor differences in policy design produce significant differences in levels of protection, all while climate change increases exposure to extreme temperatures.

"Electric utility disconnection policy and vulnerable populations," (M. Flaherty, S. Carley, D. M. Konisky), The Electricity Journal, (December 2020)

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Past energy insecurity survey results, 2020-2021

Energy Justice Lab conducted four waves of nationally-representative surveys of households at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.

Survey questions cover energy expenses and types of energy-limiting behaviors (e.g. reducing heat or A/C).

You can access the data and replication files for Energy Insecurity in the Time of COVID-19.

Access the files on Harvard Dataverse

The first wave survey of the nationally-representative sample was conducted between April 30 and May 25, 2020. 

Highlighted findings:

  • 22% of respondents had to reduce or forgo other basic needs in the past month to pay their energy bill
  • In the previous month, 13% of households indicated they could not pay an energy bill

View Nationally Representative Survey Results

The survey of Indiana households at or below 200% of the federal poverty line was administered from April 30 through June 2, 2020.

Notable findings: 

  • 15% of households indicated they could not pay an energy bill in the prior month
  • 13% of respondents reported receiving shutoff notices

View Indiana Specific Survey Results

The second wave survey was administered during August 2020. This report includes results from Wave-2 and combined results of the two waves.

Preliminary findings:

  • The data suggest that 3.8 million Americans could not pay an energy bill in at least one month since May
  • Approximately 27% of Black and 27% of Hispanic respondents could not pay their energy bill since May
  • Only 38% of respondents reported having received a stimulus check through the CARES act

View Preliminary Report

The third survey was administered in January 2021 and asks respondents to report activities in the five-month period between September and January.

Key findings:

  • 11% of low-income households report receiving a shutoff notice and 3% had their service disconnected
  • 31% of respondents have some utility debt, with 20% report owing $100 or more
  • Compared to white households, 3.5 times as many Black households and 2.5 times as many Hispanic households reported having their electricity shut off due to nonpayment

View Preliminary Report

The final wave of this four-wave panel was administered from May 24 to June 5. Summary results combine the previous three waves for May 2020 to May 2021 results.

Major findings:

  • 24% of respondents could not pay an energy bill; this suggests 23.5 million Americans could not pay an energy bill in at least one month since May 2020
  • Over 18% of respondents received shutoff notices and 8% of respondents had their service disconnected

Access the Report

Opinion Essays

America’s power disconnection crisis

"America’s power disconnection crisis: In 31 states, utilities can shut off electricity for nonpayment in a heat wave," (S. Carley, D. M. Konisky), The Conversation, (5 July 2023)

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Texas, COVID and a crisis of energy insecurity

"Texas, COVID and a crisis of energy insecurity," (S. Carley, D. M. Konisky), The Hill, (27 February 2021)

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Utility Shutoffs Signal Pandemic Misery

"Op-ed: State utility shutoffs signal pandemic misery. New research shines a painful light," (S. Carley, D. M. Konisky), IndyStar, (December 2020)

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Energy is a Basic Need Many Americans are Struggling to Afford

"Energy is a basic need, and many Americans are struggling to afford it in the COVID-19 recession," (S. Carley, D. M. Konisky), The Conversation, (July 2020)

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Coronavirus is Creating a Crisis of Energy Insecurity

"Coronavirus is creating a crisis of energy insecurity," (M. Graff, T. Memmott), Environmental Health News, (July 2020)

Read the news brief