Phoenix Latino Families Face Higher-than-Average Energy-Cost Burdens

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Phoenix ranks high on a list of U.S. cities where Latino families spend a larger portion of their household incomes on energy costs than average families, a new report found.

The report by the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that in 2011, Latino families in Phoenix spent on average 6 percent of their household income on electricity, gas, heating, cooling, and other energy costs. By comparison, all households in Phoenix paid on average 4.1 percent of their income on energy bills that same year.

The report based its findings on census figures and household demographics from 48 of the largest cities in the United States. It ranked Phoenix sixth among the 10 cities where Latinos face the highest energy burden, which the report defines as the percentage of household income that’s spent on energy costs. Memphis ranked first, with Latinos spending 8.3 percent of their household incomes on energy costs.

Phoenix also was listed in the report as one of the largest cities in the country where low-income and minority households face the worst energy burdens. Low-income families in Phoenix — those with income at or below 80 percent of area median income — spent 7.92 percent of their income on energy costs in 2011, while African American families spent 4.93 percent.

Ariel Drehobl, ACEEE research analyst and lead report author, said the energy used for cooling systems during the hot summer months in Phoenix could be a factor that places Phoenix among the worst cities when it comes to the energy burden of low-income families. But she said there could be other factors.

She said low-income families tend to live in homes that are smaller and less energy-efficient, which means the dwellings are likely to have poor insulation, air leaks, and heating/cooling systems and appliances — such as refrigerators and washing machines — that use too much energy.

“As a result, these families end up paying more per square foot on energy costs, which then equates to an even higher proportion of energy costs out of their income,” Drehoble said.

In comparison, wealthier families tend to live in larger homes that don’t require as much energy for heating and cooling than older homes. They also tend to have more efficient household appliances. As a result, they may not pay as much in energy costs per square footage as lower-income families.

Drehobl pointed to a table in the report that shows low-income families making nearly $25,000 a year tend to live in homes that are 1,200 square feet and pay on average $1.41 in energy costs per square foot. Meanwhile, families with an annual income of $90,000 tend to live in homes that are 1,800 square feet and pay about $1.17 in energy costs per square foot.

The report also found that families who face higher energy burdens experience negative long-term effects on their health and well-being. These families, according to the report, are at greater risk of developing respiratory diseases and stress-related ailments.  

The report concludes with a list of recommendations that could help reduce energy burdens. For example, it calls for more investment in energy-efficiency programs and renewable-energy projects that target households experiencing the highest energy burdens. This includes households of low-income families, Latinos, and African Americans.

In addition, Drehobl said utility companies could work with community groups to raise awareness of available energy-efficiency programs. She also pointed to a website, smarthouse.org, that families can visit to learn about the steps they can take — such as adding extra ceiling insulation to keep the heat out during summers — to lower energy costs.

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