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Summer temperatures put heat on NH to develop cooling assistance programs

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2022 2:36:29 AM
Modified: 8/18/2022 2:33:02 AM

LEBANON — After a summer of high temperatures, New Hampshire residents will be sweating out higher electric bills starting next month.

On Aug. 1, Eversource and Liberty Utilities customers saw around a 50% increase in their energy prices, which measures out to an average monthly bill hike of around $70. New Hampshire Electric Co-op customers will be paying around $38 more.

But residents receiving financial assistance could also get a shock on their electric bill. The electric assistance programs currently in place in New Hampshire, the funding of which is administered by the state’s five community action agencies, doesn’t differentiate what a user does with their electricity, state Consumer Advocate Don Kreis said. Regardless of function, the assistance program gives the consumer a break on their electric bill and is funded by the systems benefits charge on each bill sent by utilities.

“If you’re using your air conditioning, you might well get beyond the threshold of what the state helps to relieve,” Kreis said. Running a single window unit for six hours would cost roughly the same as doing two full loads of laundry, and New Hampshire electric bills typically increase around 25% in the summer due to cooling appliances.

“The unpleasant effects of those higher prices won’t be felt until September,” Kreis said. “Consumers won’t find out until after the fact how hard it was to afford air conditioning during the heat wave.”

Bonnie Stebbins has lived in Hannah Village Mobile Home Park in Lebanon since 2005, and she said that she’s preparing herself to receive a more costly electric bill next month. To save money, she runs the appliances in her home as little as possible — including her AC window units. “We do it with a second thought. Do we really want to run this? Is it worth it?”

But keeping the air conditioning off leaves her concerned for her health.

“I’m 70 years old,” Stebbins said. “And this heat has been really uncomfortable.”

New Hampshire’s Environmental Public Health Track department reported that air conditioning, especially for vulnerable populations like the elderly, infants, and people with chronic conditions is essential. Hesitations to acquire or turn on air conditioners due to rate hikes can be dangerous. The department found an increase in the excess number of emergency department visits on days that clock in above 75 degrees and warns against relying on fans as a primarily cooling device, recommending instead staying in air conditioning as much as possible.

While cooling assistance programs — which provide relief specifically aimed at electricity used for cooling — are a mainstay in warm regions across the country, most states in New England typically use assistance funds for their demanding heating seasons. However, as summer temperatures in the region are more closely mirroring those of states with established cooling assistance programs, like New York, cities and towns are responding at the local level. Last summer, Chelsea, Mass., opened up applications for free air conditioners that came with $300 utility relief checks, and an agency in Portsmouth, N.H., regularly gives out air conditioners to vulnerable populations free of charge.

Listen Programs Director Angela Zhang said that the community service provider has fielded more requests for AC units than it ever has before, and its donation-driven energy assistance fund is stretched to a breaking point.

“In the past that fund was only used for heating,” Zhang said.

She thought of the program as only running November through April, but Zhang said that in the last decade or so, demand has been year-round.

“Over time, we need to think about not just supporting the coldest of winter but also the heat waves in the summer,” Zhang said. “This is something that we’ll have to think about going forward with climate change.”

This year, New Hampshire was able to provide a credit toward electric bills of customers who also qualified for fuel assistance in hopes that it could relieve the anticipated summer spike in electric costs. But the credits — provided with money leftover from ARPA funds, which expire at the end of September — are not a permanent solution.

“Hopefully this relief would give people the leeway to buy a fan or an AC, or at least feel less hesitant to run one,” state fuel assistance administrator Eileen Smiglowksi said, adding that in “a perfect world,” one devoid of funding and demand fluctuations, New Hampshire would put its weight behind a more permanent cooling program. “But this year, frankly because of the incredible influx that we’re planning on seeing in the winter, it’s not a focus for us.”

Kevin Hanlon, weatherization consultant for Liberty and Unitil, said that while cooling assistance is “certainly on the radar” of the providers, nothing is set in stone yet. “New Hampshire is generally considered a heating state, and the subject of cooling and its contribution to someone’s electric bill has never been a big issue around here,” Hanlon said. “But the strength of the recent hot spell tied in with the increase in electric rates, and it’s certainly on the plates of electricity providers.”

Like Smiglowski on the state side, Hanlon hopes that providers can pull together their own cooling assistance programs by next summer.

Across the board — from the state to utility providers to community action agencies —those working in energy assistance recommend weatherization as the first step a homeowner should take toward saving money on utility bills. Installing attic and wall insulation, in addition to other lower-cost weatherization efforts like replacing filters on furnaces, can keep a house both cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter while also reducing energy costs.

“Cooling is weatherization,” New Hampshire Weatherization Assistance Program Manager Kirk Stone said. Waitlists are currently long for government-funded weatherization programs, which are administered by community action agencies. But Stone urged residents to put their names down anyway. In the meantime, he tells residents to weatherize as much as they can on their own, especially as New Hampshire moves from an expensive cooling season into an expensive heating season.

More information about weatherization assistance can be found at the following link: https://www.energy.nh.gov/consumers/help-energy-and-utility-bills/weatherization-assistance-program.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at 603-727-3242 or fmize@vnews.com.




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