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Summer heat wave to impact upstate New Yorkers' energy bills

The control panel of an air conditioner
Evan Youngs

This summer’s heat wave will leave low-income residents in upstate New York at heightened risk, experts say.

Energy assistance directors expect cooling costs to increase by 7.9% nationwide, according to a recent report from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA), for an average cost of $719 per household.

“We must treat access to cooling like we treat access to heating,” Mark Wolfe, author of the report, stated in a press release. “We must develop programs that enable low-income families to stay safe and in their homes during extreme temperatures.”

The report follows forecasts by meteorologists that this summer will be one of upstate New York’s hottest on record. In fact, after NASA scientists confirmed May 2024 to be the warmest May on record, average global temperatures have reached a record-high for each month for a full year.

Matt Huber, a professor at Syracuse University who specializes in climate policy, considers the climate crisis a “class conflict” for its impact on working-class people.

“The energy businesses are a very tiny small portion of society that own and make profit off those businesses, and the majority of folks in society don’t own a lot of energy infrastructure,” Huber said. “We really need to kind of create that kind of mass constituency that can take on the power of that small group of people.”

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) advises homeowners to get a home energy assessment to receive a report on where their home is wasting energy and how they can reduce their energy bill.

The department’s list of tips to reduce energy usage also includes using a ceiling fan along with an air conditioner to circulate air throughout the room, and to consider purchasing a heat pump.

At a recent climate summit hosted by the Vatican, Hochul voiced support for electrifying utilities as a means to “wean ourselves from the fossil fuel companies.”

But for many working-class people, Huber says, switching to heat pumps is a major expense that can lead to backlash toward climate policy, known as “greenlashing.”

“If we can’t find a way to do decarbonization and climate policy, in addition to materially improving working people’s lives…I really do fear that a lot of working people aren’t going to be that sympathetic to the climate agenda,” Huber said.

By reducing residents’ energy bills and providing heat pumps at no cost, Huber says states could “make it economically attractive to transition to a green economy.”

New York state’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) opened their applications for cooling assistance benefits in April. Eligible residents can receive money to buy an air conditioner or a fan. The state also offers low-interest loans to assist residents who purchase a heat pump system.

Cutbacks to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the federal program that provides block grants to state programs, set funding for utility bill assistance to $4.1 billion, a reduction from last year’s $6.1 billion of funding. About 20% of LIHEAP goes toward cooling costs.