Two recent additions to the Google Maps Gallery highlight a startling overlap between poverty and the percentage of income paid in utility bills.
According to the maps, provided by the environmental non-profit organization Appalachian Voices, the poorest regions of the Southeastern part of the United States pay a high percentage of their income in utility bills. The maps also showed that families all over the Southeast pay more across the board for electricity when compared to the U.S. average.
Fully 3% of Southeastern families’ incomes go to heat and electricity. That number jumps to 20% for low-income families.
What could be causing the disparity?
Rory McIlmoil, director of energy policy at Appalachian Voices, says the weather of the Appalachian region is unpredictable and dynamic. “We have more extreme changes in weather than other areas of the country,” says McIlmoil. “That can definitely contribute to higher demand and higher costs.”
Lower-income homes are more likely to be poorly weatherized and poorly insulated, and also more likely to contain more outdated, inefficient appliances and HVAC systems. As we move further into the 21st Century, it’s important to remember that a furnace or heater built in 2002 is now a 12-year-old piece of equipment, and virtually antique when compared to the state-of-the-art options available today.
Updating an antiquated heating and/or cooling system can significantly reduce an annual utilities budget, but a new system in an inefficiently insulated home can still bleed energy and, consequently, money. However, for many low-income families, updating their entire HVAC system and improving their insulation may not be financially possible, even with assistance.
Some programs are in place, but availability is an issue. According to McIlmoil, “Only one out of eight residents, at most, has access to financing for home energy efficiency.”