Booming natural gas prices, along with retiring coal plants and limited oil production, mean electric bills will likely go up across the country this summer.
That includes Mississippi, where both energy consumption and the inability to pay for electric bills rank among the highest of any state.
Earlier this month, the Energy Information Administration projected that electric bills nationwide will go up 4% on average this summer compared to 2021. EIA projects a 3% increase in the East South Central region, comprising Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.
Generally, homes in southeastern states consume more electricity than those in the rest of the country. In 2020, the average Mississippi residence was using more electricity than only two other states, Louisiana and Tennessee.
“A lot of that is due to the climate,” said Central District Public Service Commissioner Brent Bailey. “But we also have older housing stock, many (homes) that have not gotten extensive upgrades, retrofits or weatherization.”
Bailey also said Mississippi has a lot of manufactured homes, which tend to be less energy efficient.
Even though the retail cost of energy in Mississippi is cheaper than the national average, paying energy bills is relatively challenging because the state consumes so much power and has by far the lowest median household income.
For low-income residents, the “energy burden” – how much of a person’s income goes to paying their power bill – is higher in Mississippi at 12% than in any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Catherine Lee, who coordinates house health and safety programs for the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Jackson, explained that high utility bills force difficult budgeting decisions for homeowners.
“People will very often take care of rent and utilities first before they’re taking care of other health and food needs,” she said. “It is a common issue that a lot of the families we work with have to think about, and will have to figure out how to deal with payment plans if they get behind and, if they experience a shutoff, have to pay the fees to get things turned back on.”
Both Entergy Mississippi and Mississippi Power raised retail rates in response to the natural gas price hike, increasing the average monthly bill $7.81 and $5.27, respectively, WLBT reported.
Bailey and Lee both called for improving the state’s energy efficiency standards to reduce people’s power bills.
“As far as a statewide basis, we don’t have a minimum construction code built around efficient construction in housing, which is something I think needs strong consideration,” Bailey said.
While some cities have their own measures, Mississippi has no uniform energy efficiency standards for construction like many states do, he explained. He added that landlords lack incentives to make those changes.
“What is the motivation of a landlord to invest in weatherization upgrades if they’re still getting the same price for that rental?” he said.
The PSC-regulated utilities, such as Entergy Mississippi, Mississippi Power, and Atmos, all offer programs to encourage efficiency, such as rebates for replacing old appliances or in-person audits to check for things like insulation.
Lee said those measures have a limited reach.
“The way that the programs are currently administered don’t have any energy reduction targets for utilities,” she said. “There’s no metrics to track how they’re improving efficiency overall.”
A scorecard of energy efficiency policies, put together by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, ranked Mississippi 48th in the country in 2020.
Even after accounting for the differences in weather, home age and home size, low-income homes in Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas use 36% more electricity than those in other states, according to the DOE.
“That’s to me showing that our housing stock has a significant need for upgrades that they’re not getting because we’re not investing in it enough,” Lee said.
As part of new funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Mississippi received over $28 million to help implement its Weatherization Assistance Program, which provides funding for installing insulation, updating appliances and other efficiency measures through the Mississippi Department of Human Services.