Lights and Gas Move More and More Out of the Range of Ordinary People

Sharon June 24th, 2008

This article is, I think, a disturbing look at the future for most households. 

Electricity and natural gas shutoffs are up at least 15% in several states compared with last year. Totals for some utilities have more than doubled.

“We’re seeing a record number of shutoffs,” says Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents programs that subsidize energy bills.

An NEADA survey this month shows 8% of four-member households earning $33,500 to $55,500 have had their power turned off for non-payment. “It’s hitting people in the suburbs with two cars and two kids,” Wolfe says.

The disconnects are rising as warm-weather power bills increase, some state moratoriums on winter shutoffs expire, and rates are climbing in many states.”

Regular readers have heard me on this subject before, but I think it is important to reiterate - questions of whether the Grid will stay up aren’t the primary issue when it comes to electricity - the question of whether you can pay your bills will be.  With more and more defaulters, utility companies are likely to lobby to end winter shut-off laws in houses without medically fragile people, and they may well succeed.

Meanwhile, the housing bust is accellerating and job losses are rising.  Unless you are very certain of your income, it would be wise to assume that some portion of next year may be spent without power in your house.   If living there without it isn’t pleasant for you, do what you can to make it so. I strongly advice my readers to consider ways of making no (or very low - getting your bill down to something you can actually pay and prevent shutoffs with) power.  Right now, in the very early stages of a Depression, most people are able to work out a deal with the power company, to put it on a credit card.  That will not last forever - the credit will dry up and the ability to get funds will too.  Please, start thinking now about how you will deal with extended utility outages - this is one of those things where your level of suffering is directly related to how much in advance you plan for it.

More on this subject:

More on why, if your house is worth saving, you should lose the utilities before you lose the house itself:

What to do with the energy guzzling appliances afterwards:

Why this doesn’t really have to be so awful: 


24 Responses to “Lights and Gas Move More and More Out of the Range of Ordinary People”

  1. MissyMon 24 Jun 2008 at 4:41 pm

    I have fireplaces in the main floor and the basement, and come to think of it, a third chimney for an oil heater that we no longer have. So I should probably think about getting a fireplace insert for the main floor and somehow blocking off the basement chimney(s)?

    How important (in your opinion) is it to get windows replaced? Our house was built in 1959 and while the panes are double, the air space is compromised. Perhaps a good set of insulated curtains is a better idea?

  2. Ailsa Ekon 24 Jun 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Window quilts are a good thing. Worst comes to worst, I’m planning on running the fireplace, setting the furnace (natural gas) just warm enough to keep the pipes unfrozen, and hanging quilts in the doorways to keep the heat in the basement/library/fireplace room. I can cook in the fireplace if I have to.

  3. Kelsieon 24 Jun 2008 at 6:59 pm

    We live in an old house (c. 1920s) where almost nothing has been updated–no insulation, horrible windows, etc. We’re renting, and I love this house, but if last winter is any indication of what we’ll be dealing with this winter, I suppose we’ll have to move. We’re not running the central air…we put an energy star window unit in one, closed-off room and we keep it at 80–this is so our pets can go into that room and be comfortable. Last winter, we kept the heat turned down to 56 and the fireplace burning almost constantly. It took all of my energy to just find wood, chop wood, and keep the fire going all day…I also developed bursitis from kneeling on the hearth all winter! I did a bit of cooking in the fireplace, and I’m confident I could do it again, if need be.

    People pitied us…but I felt it an adventure of sorts. Hopefully, that optimism will carry me through the long haul…


  4. Kiashuon 24 Jun 2008 at 7:00 pm

    As I noted in The Freezing Point of Industrial Society, we live today in a wasteful industrial society, one in which energy and resources have been so cheap we’ve been able to afford to waste them, waste them on airconditioning in cars and plastic wishbones. As energy and resources become more expensive, waste becomes more difficult.

    The average US household consumes, according to the EIA, 10,650kWh a year, or 29kWh a day. But of course this is just an average over millions, there’s a lot of variation, with some using much less, and some using much more - and neither being much happier or more miserable as a result, just having a different power bill.

    I strongly suspect that the 8% of households earning $33,500 to $55,500 who’ve had a shutoff for non-payment are those consuming an above average amount of power, and/or those who consume above average in some other area, so don’t have spare cash.

    My woman and I have in six years of comfortable living saved three years’ income. If one of us stopped working, we could pay the rent on the interest on the savings; if we both stopped working, we’d have to draw on the principal but could continue living as we do today for a decade. Other childless couples we know have higher joint incomes than us, but have no savings at all, and are constantly complaining about rising prices, when we visit their homes we see red notices from utilities companies, and so on.

    The simple difference is that we have a budget and a goal, whereas they muddle along week to week - they don’t even know how much they spend on groceries.

    So at this stage I would say that rising prices are affecting mostly the very poor (the article does not mention those on incomes under, say, $10,000), and people who handle their finances very poorly. I am concerned about the very poor, I am not too concerned about people with two cars per household who are sloppy with their money.

    Any signs of crisis are to be found among the poor, not the sleepy middle-class. Welfare mums having to choose between heating and feeding their children, that’s a sign of crisis. People with two cars being sloppy with money, that’s not.

  5. Anonymouson 24 Jun 2008 at 7:40 pm

    Sharon (or anyone else),

    Would you mind sharing the type of solar lanterns and radios and chargers you have or where you found them? Sounds like something that might be a good idea to ask for at the holidays from relatives who insist on getting presents.

    Also, I read that LED lights may not be safe. Any thoughts on this?


  6. Judyon 24 Jun 2008 at 8:00 pm

    My mother lives in a very old house (1830s) that has had some upgrades, but not much. The house is uninsulated with old single-pane ripply windows, and ten years ago when I rented an apartment from her, she struggled to keep oil for heat, using about 300 gallons per month. Yes, that is gallons per month, and we live in New Hampshire, so the heating season is typically from October to April or May. I keep pointing her to this blog, and she is trying to make adjustments. She said she in installing a pellet stove this year to heat the two apartments and that she expects it will pay for itself very quickly. She just needs to find a way to keep all the heat in. Plastic on the windows only goes so far when the heat can escape through he very walls.

  7. Ameliaon 24 Jun 2008 at 8:19 pm


    The UK’s looking at a 40% increase, with people paying $800 more per year.

  8. Ailsa Ekon 24 Jun 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Ditto the request for solar lanterns. All I’ve been able to find so far is sunjars, which are neat and all, but not as practical as I’d like.

  9. Meganon 24 Jun 2008 at 9:55 pm

    My house is less than 700 sf and I live in a mild climate. I have pretty good windows and the attic is well insulated, I’m pretty cozy here. Good shade trees to the south and creative airflow/blinds shutting keep it cool enough on rare hot days. I don’t have A/C and no central heating, just a couple of electric oil-filled radiators. It does the trick. My utility bills have been fairly low and even if prices rise dramatically, I can afford more. As I go along in my planning, my worst case scenario plans get better and better. I’d survive with no utilities right now, but it would suck. As my plans get better, it will potentially suck less.

    I feel pretty fortunate on this front, I know a lot of people who have a hard time with their utilities as it is.

  10. Jenniferon 24 Jun 2008 at 10:08 pm

    For all those worrying about old windows… studies show that old single paned windows (even the old wavy glass) that have been reglazed, when coupled with a properly fitted storm window, are much MORE efficient than the new offgassing vinyl replacements, and even the newer wood windows.

    DON”T REPLACE YOUR WINDOWS! Even if there is rot you can salvage them for a hundred or so.

    You can make storms with just a router and saw and glass cutter out of free materials- wood and glass you can easily find on craigslist and similar. Or you can have them made, at a fraction of the cost of new windows.

    Also.. the old windows ahve lasted decades… the new windows are lucky to last 20 years before needing replaced.


    On the subject of US, we have already felt the pinch. We are lucky that my husband has a very stable job as a teacher in a growing district and is tenured, and we can live on his salary if absolutely necessary… but my jobs (as low paying as they are) are directly tied to teh economy. We are choosing different foods at the grocery store, rationing out dishsoap, and trying our best to make our own bread and such.

  11. Beckyon 24 Jun 2008 at 11:12 pm

    I keep turning down the hot water heater, is now a couple of lines below the 110F mark. Still plenty hot to take a shower. I also bought solar camping showers. Whenever we do get sunshine, the water does get surprisingly hot in those bags. Helps to lay them flat and give an occasional wiggle.
    Last month my power usage was a whopping 5% lower than the year before. Looks like I got a long way to go.

  12. Lanceon 24 Jun 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Incredible, they are starting in places to require a permit to collect rain water that falls from the sky onto your own property into barrel!

    Mind boggling! The Audacity of this!

    There is more to this than meets the eye, see McCain’s new bill that corporate crooks want that would nationalize all water from any source for any use buy anyone as Federally owned and regulated and metered then sold off to them to resell to us. That is all water, 100% of it!

  13. Robert Rothon 25 Jun 2008 at 1:13 am

    On the subject of light, not heat, this was posted on the CounterPunch site yesterday:
    Keep Your Wicks Trimmed! - Bright Ideas for Storms and Blackouts
    By TIM MATSON – June 23, 2008 -
    As storms, heat waves, and fires continue to hit most of the country, blackouts are happening with increasing frequency. Why? We’ve got more people and vulnerable power lines. Be prepared.
    · Keep a supply of candles handy. Seven day emergency candles come in their own protective glass pedestals for stabilty, drip prevention, and wind shielding. Beeswax candles have a honey sweet aroma, burn much longer than paraffin candles with no chemical fumes, and they’re made from a renewable resource.
    · Kerosene wick lamps are inexpensive and reliable – I recently bought one for five bucks at the local hardware store, and it works great. No batteries to fade, rechargers to forget, or bulbs to burn out. Try the new paraffin fuels for odor free burning.
    · Aladdin mantle lamps are as bright as a 60 watt bulb, and if your heat goes off they can be used to help keep a house warm.
    · Outdoor lanterns provide good all-weather lighting for driveways and entry paths, and a handle for carrying in the dark. Some of the new lanterns have a cooking holder to heat liquids and food, and for added safety, a pedestal base with stakes for stabilty.
    · Wood stoves with fireview windows will keep you well lit and warm when the grid fails.
    · Fuel lamps with round or double wicks give you twice the light of a single wick lamp.
    · Liquid propane mantle lamps are installed on the wall for the ultimate in stabilty and brightness. Make sure not to install in small poorly ventilated cabins or RVs, and use a CO2 alarm.
    · Antique kerosene lamps, Aladdins, and original Dietz lanterns are highly valued by collectors. Some lamp companies make collector’s editions of lamps and painted glass shades. They make popular wedding and anniversary gifts, not to mention adding a special flare to your emergency lighting.
    · Renewable non-petroleum illuminants are gaining popularity. In addition to beeswax and soy candles, special lamps are made to burn olive oil and other vegetable fuels. Enjoy a 100% green blackout!
    · Keep your wicks trimmed and chimneys clean. When the power goes out these lights shine.
    Tim Matson’s updated new book is The Book of Non-Electric Lighting: The Classic Guide to the Safe Use of Candles, Fuel Lamps, Lanterns, Gaslights & Fireview Stoves. Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.

  14. Anion 25 Jun 2008 at 5:29 am

    RE: windows- rather than replacing windows, it can be more cost efficient to reglaze them and add storms- or make temporary storms with plastic- really does help.

    I try to close off as many rooms as possible, so those that don’t get used often- such as a spare bedroom- are closed off in winter when not in use.

    I think the heating bill issue is going to be a biggie- our Lt Governor just made news headlines by declaring a heating emergency(pre-emergency?) of sorts for this winter’s heating season here- but what will come of it I don’t know. Our governor vetoed a bill last year that would have assisted people in weatherizing their homes, etc- currently all of those programs here are reserved for the poorest of the poor- so if you have say a small IRA/401 K- recognizing that Soc. Security won’t be able to support you when you are older- you won’t qualify for assistance- so the only option is to spend any $$ you have on weatherizing your house I guess- and then go off on an ice floe when you are old…..
    (but that may be impossible as all the ice will have melted by then ;-) )
    I think it will be an interesting winter- but the one after will be even more interesting in terms of prices- wood has been skyrocketing in price- some of us bought our supply early on- but that won’t help for next year-although I have a 2 year supply on hand now…… have to start cutting/splitting more of my own….

  15. Green Assassin Brigadeon 25 Jun 2008 at 6:49 am

    I have a friend in propane retail and he says cut offs in Canada are high as well but he says the bigger issue might be the number of distributors going under because of the many people who have defaulted on their bills. In some remote areas where there is little competition there may be no distributor by winter.

    We are starting to see some action by governments up here where some regional electrical company in cooperation with municipalities are offering interest free loans for residential Solar Pv/ solar hot water/ geothermal and wind instalations.
    For some reason the plan excludes the new high efficiency air sourced heat pumps and solar air heaters but it’s a start.

    Energy supply is also getting tight, I believe the inability to buy sufficient heating this winter is the only thing that will stop a fuel oil shortage, so either way there will be a lot of cold misserable people next winter. Just this last winter it would have taken just 2 more weeks of cold to have caused U.S. shortages in heationg oil and with the recent decisions NOT to continue rebuilding the strategic reserves to lower prices there may still be an issue next heating season.

  16. Rosaon 25 Jun 2008 at 9:52 am

    I suspect that in the US, just as with bankruptcies, the vast majority of people getting their heat & electricity shut off are people with medical problems or a recent medical care incident.

    People live their day-to-day lives budgeting and planning as if they won’t have huge medical expensese, because they know there’s nothing they can really do to prevent financial ruin if they do have them, and then something happens and it *is* ruinous.

    I had a minor, recurrent problem this winter that I got physical therapy for, and it cost me $850 on top of my monthly medical insurance premium. $850 over four months is the same as our winter grocery budget for those four months.

    People who are just energy wasters have been adjusting. They may not be able to adjust as fast as prices rise, but they do it - my coworkers have been switching to the bus in droves, getting roomates for big apartments, hanging blankets over windows, carpooling, moving to (usually smaller) apartments or townhomes with heat included in the rent - but those changes take time, so if they didn’t notice the need until it hit their budget, there’s a several month gap between when they can’t afford it and when they find a way to make things work. And like Sharon said, elderly people may choose to be cold over admitting they can’t afford things.

    But I don’t believe that many people just wasted themselves into ruin. Even the most spendthrift “pave the earth” libertarian will slow down energy use when it starts eating up the rest of the budget, if they can.

  17. scifichickon 25 Jun 2008 at 9:57 am

    I am wondering what people are doing whose only utility is electricity? I’m in an apartment and my heating is electric. And also my stove too. Heating is not as bad as we seemed to not need much during the winter. I guess things were pretty insulated and it was comfortably warm in a sweater after cooking dinner. But how would I cook without a stove? I would love to buy something and store it for emergency, but what do I need to get? That is reasonable to have in an apartment?

  18. Taraon 25 Jun 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Unlike most of the rest of the country, our problem isn’t cold winters, but rather very hot summers. We’ve been in the high 90’s every single day for many weeks now without reprieve, and none is in sight. It only drops to the mid-seventies at night, usually with zero breeze, so opening windows to “harvest” cooler nighttime air doesn’t help at all. I just can’t come up with an energy-efficient solution to this, so we run the A/C. We could suffer through it, I suppose, but during the heat of the day, we’d get nothing whatsoever done, and it’s really hard to sleep at night when your bedroom is 85 degrees. It also becomes a problem for the pets. I don’t know what to do about it. Our summer lasts from mid-April to mid-September. That’s a long time to sit around fanning yourself with a wet rag on your head. :-(

  19. Shambaon 25 Jun 2008 at 1:07 pm

    FOR SOLAR LANTERNS: I got one through Matt Savinar’s site, at the store there. Also, Nitro-Pak food suppliers also has these in there emergency supplies area (I think that’s where they have them.) The one I got has an electric battery pack, too and a radio in it.) I don’t know if this is what you all might be interested in or not.

    thanks you for your blog, sharon.

  20. Shambaon 25 Jun 2008 at 1:08 pm

    FOR SOLAR LANTERNS: I got one through Matt Savinar’s site, at the store there. Also, Nitro-Pak food suppliers also has these in there emergency supplies area (I think that’s where they have them.) The one I got has an electric battery pack, too and a radio in it.) I don’t know if this is what you all might be interested in or not.

    thanks you for your blog, sharon.

  21. Michael Con 27 Jun 2008 at 11:35 am

    One thing you could do to save energy is paint your home.

    Using “HYTECH” paints with ceramic spheres. The company has partnered with NASA (spin offf tech.) to make hollow ceramic spheres act like a thermos bottle. You paint your home and improve your walls R level without tearing them down. My home has studs that go from dry wall to brick and blowing in insulation won’t change the stud R level. The tiny spheres also improve the clean-ability of walls as ceramic is very tough.

    They also have aluminum paint (heat reflective) with creamic beads to further improve heating/cooling of a home.

    The ceramic beads can be ordered alone (added to your own paint) to save shipping charges or, you can buy the ready mix paint for about the cost of a premium paint (less shipping).

  22. Dmitry Orlovon 27 Jun 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Here are some ideas:

    For illumination: LED lights and 10W halogens for reading; solar panels (for 3 people, you’ll need about 200W) and a couple of deep-cycle (truck) batteries. If you wire it all yourself, it can be done for under $1000.

    For communication: everything can run on 12V or through a 12V adapter. Inverters and AC devices are all power hogs. TV tuner card for a cheap laptop computer for watching TV.

    For refrigeration: a propane fridge from an RV place. They are top-loading, so you can pack them full, and a 20 lb tank of propane lasts about a month ($20 currently).

    For heat: a great medieval Japanese invention called “kotatsu” - a wooden box with a metal firebox inside. Put some burning wood coals in the firebox, and warm your feet against it.

    Bed clothes: wool socks, wool hat, flannel, fleece, etc.

    Bed canopy: don’t heat the room, just heat the bed.

  23. Roberton 27 Jun 2008 at 11:44 pm

    Re: High cost of A/C during hot summers.

    I live in an apartment on the top floor immediately under the roof in a small apartment building (7 units). The summer heat, especially on humid days can indeed be unbearable. After many years of study and experimentation, I finally found a solution to my heat problem which does not require any A/C system. It turns out, that most of the heat in my apartment comes in via infrared radiation through the windows. In order to stop that heat infiltration, I installed OUTSIDE all windows a panel half an inch thick made of insulation boards sold by Home Depot. These boards are covered with aluminum foil on one side and are blue on the other side. All windows are completely covered except for the bottom foot of the window area. That bottom foot lets enough light to come in, so the apartment has enough daylight to feel comfortable. The difference is astounding! It is now cooler inside the apartment than outside. Morever, most of the summer I do not run any A/C anymore, only on days where outside temperatures exceed 95 degrees which are exceptional in the area where I live (NYC).

    The lesson to learn from this example is: When A/C costs are getting high, instead of pumping the heat out using expensive electricity, take simple measures to prevent the heat entering your house in the first place. The amount of energy saved this way is very substantial.

    The same remark applies of course in the winter. Instead of heating your house, investigate for ways to prevent the heat leaking out of your house. Most heat losses are due to air leakage, not radiation. The first step is to make your house much tighter with respect to air infiltration. That helps also during hot summer days.

  24. Pangolinon 28 Jun 2008 at 7:09 am

    The first consideration is that it is far easier to heat a person than a building. An old pair of blue jeans legs filled with rock salt can be heated in an oven or a steamer. Sized appropriately these can be used as lap warmers or bed warmers.

    At night, a canopy of cloth around your bed raises the temperature ten degrees. It becomes a tent inside a room that can warm you up. A roll of tyvek housewrap, about $150, could be used to wrap the exterior of a small house over the siding. It will degrade in 4 or 5 months but it would be far cheaper than heating oil. The same roll could be used to tent off warm spaces inside the house sufficient to sit in comfortably.

    Mother Earth News has published plans for home-made solar heaters that can be placed under windows with southern exposure. These are boxes with a glass face and a baffle to let air move through slowly. One of these can heat a moderate sized room during the day.

    Barrels of water with anti-freeze can be used to store solar gains during the day and release them at night. Placed in a small greenhouse and vented supplemental heat can make a huge difference.

    Avoid burning wood in a fireplace if you can purchase or rig any kind of wood stove instead. Even the most simple fireplace insert will give you much more useable heat and conserve fuel. Be careful that all internal wood fires are supplied with external feed air to prevent backdrafts.

    Good luck.

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