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Opinion: Extreme heat kills. What the US can do to protect the most vulnerable | CNN

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As of now, only 17 states and Washington, DC have protections against utility shutoffs during the summer, Mark Wolfe points out.

Editor’s Note: Mark Wolfe is an energy economist and serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, representing the state directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and co-director of the Center on Climate, Energy and Poverty. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.


Summer starts Thursday, and record-breaking temperatures are already cascading across the United States. Triple-digit temperatures have hit the western states, with the Northeast, Midwest and Great Lakes regions expected to see extreme heat waves this week.

Current US strategies for keeping families cool, including access to cooling centers — temporary shelters during heat waves — may have worked when temperatures were lower and the duration of heat waves was shorter, but in today’s climate, these outdated cooling methods are inadequate.

Weather-related deaths from extreme heat are more common than from those from hurricanes, floods, extreme cold and other natural disasters. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1,220 people die from extreme heat every year. And some experts think that these numbers understate the full extent of the problem because of a lack of consistent methods to record these deaths.

We need a full paradigm shift in policy to deploy the right solutions to the people who need them most.

The cost of home cooling has been rising steadily for the last 10 years, in part because families need to purchase more electricity to cool their homes as temperatures continue to rise. The National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) and the Center for Energy Poverty and Climate project that the financial burden to families of keeping cool this summer will increase by 7.9% across the United States to an average of $719 from June through September. That’s up from $661 during the same period last year.

Low-income families will be at greatest risk of falling behind on their utility bills this summer, and therefore of facing utility shutoffs and suffering dangerous health effects of extreme heat exposure.

The average energy burden for low-income households is about 8.6% of income, three times the rate for non-low-income households (3%). And according to the US Energy Information Administration, almost 20% of low-income families making less than $20,000 per year reported having no air-conditioning equipment in 2020. Increasing access to adequate cooling throughout the summer months for these families is imperative.

As of now, only 17 states and Washington, DC have protections against utility shutoffs during the summer, and many of those protections are limited in scope to periods of extreme temperatures.

To make matters worse, funding for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides formula grants to states to help struggling households pay their energy bills, has been reduced from $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2023 to $4.1 billion for fiscal year 2024, leaving states with few options other than reducing assistance.

Congress must restore the $2 billion that was cut from LIHEAP back to the program this year. But, given that’s not likely, utilities across the United States should agree to voluntarily suspend power shutoffs during the summer.

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They should also add bill payment assistance programs that provide a set of tiered discounts that reflect households’ abilities to pay. Several states have already implemented different levels of utility discounts with successful outcomes, including Connecticut, which just put into effect a program providing a discount on monthly electric utility bills of up to 50% for low-income families.

Long term, we need to invest in solutions that we know work and are cost-effective. Federal programs, like the longstanding Weatherization Assistance Program and the more recently passed Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates program, can lead the way to helping low-income families stay safe in their homes during both the winter heating and summer cooling seasons. But they must be adequately funded to reach their full potential.

During periods of extreme heat, cooling is not just a luxury that provides comfort, but a necessary measure that helps families across all income brackets, and especially low-income families, stay safe.

Read More:Opinion: Extreme heat kills. What the US can do to protect the most vulnerable | CNN