- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - While last year’s lower fuel prices helped to reduce the gap between what struggling Connecticut families can afford to pay for energy and what they actually paid, there are concerns fuel prices may be higher this winter as more people need emergency assistance.

Karen Adamson, executive director of Operation Fuel, a nonprofit emergency energy assistance program, said the number of households living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level - which is $48,600 for a family of four - has grown by about 9,000 households to a total of 322,000.

“Every community in every district has households struggling with energy costs,” said Adamson, who appeared at a state Capitol news conference on Tuesday to unveil her organization’s 2016 Home Energy Affordability Gap study. On average, each of the 322,000 households owes about $1,241 more in annual energy bills than it can afford to pay.

This year’s report shows the total gap between what low-income Connecticut families can afford and what they have to pay for energy is $399 million, about $71 million less than the 2015 study. Adamson attributes the drop to last year’s moderating home heating oil and natural gas prices. But she noted the U.S. Energy Administration is predicting home heating oil prices could be 36 percent higher, while electricity costs could jump 5 percent.

“History has shown that energy costs can be variable,” Adamson said.

Economist Roger Colton, who authored the report, said there are several things federal and state policymakers must do to prevent a crisis this winter in Connecticut and other states. He said the federal government must continue to maintain funding for a weatherization assistance program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. He also stressed the continued need for public and private funding for emergency energy assistance, adding how the state’s available resources are “extremely insufficient.”

Colton said the state’s General Assembly also should consider passing legislation that requires the state’s utilities to create energy assistance programs to help low-income homeowners who can’t pay their bills, similar to initiatives already in place in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.

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