Home energy costs make up a sizable portion of household budgets (Figure 10-3). In recent years volatile prices for natural gas, electricity, and fuel oil have significantly increased many consumers’ costs. One group particularly vulnerable to rapid increases in energy prices is older consumers. Although they consume approximately as much energy as younger people do, older Americans devote a higher percentage of their total spending to residential energy costs. They spend a greater proportion of their income to heat their homes (this is true even after statistics are adjusted for weather and home size). Low-income older households spend an average of 10 percent of their income on residential energy. However, in about one out of four cases, low-income older households devote 15 percent or more of their income to home energy bills. Too often older adults with low incomes must choose between cutting back on energy expenditures and reducing spending for other necessities, and may thus end up risking their health or comfort.
For many older adults with low and moderate incomes, high and unpredictable home energy prices jeopardize stable home heating and cooling. This increases the possibility of their homes being too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Such exposure can lead to a host of adverse health outcomes, ranging from the aggravation of chronic health conditions to food spoilage to premature death. According to the most recent statistics, exposure to heat and cold kills thousands of people prematurely in the US each year; it also causes many adverse health outcomes that do not prove fatal.