Natural gas prices are down, but temperatures are up, as are utility bills for many homes. Across the country, programs to help low-income residents cover their energy costs, designed decades ago with winter heating in mind, are struggling to keep up with increased summer demand.

In Texas, which has been cooking under an unprecedented heat wave for more than a month, air conditioners are running at full capacity, increasing electricity generation costs that are often passed on to customers. The Texas Electric Reliability Board, which operates the state’s utility grid, has seen rising demand break maximum system load records 10 times in the past five weeks, peaking at around 83,000 gigawatts on Tuesday.

“Every summer we get hot,” said Bobby Deike, executive director of the South Central Texas Community Council. «I think what was a little different this year is that it’s been a lot hotter before.»

The group has already distributed an average of $2,180 per household to help low-income residents cover energy costs this fiscal year, Deike said. That’s more than double its average of about $969 in 2021, though the increase came after the state tightened its aid criteria, handing out larger payments to Texans most in need.

A mild winter in many parts of the US helped boost this year’s supply of natural gas, prices for which have fallen about 60% since last summer. But high demand for electricity in recent weeks and the limited ability of renewables to fill the gap have mitigated those savings.

This is partly because heat waves often create still atmospheres that limit the amount of power wind turbines can bring to the grid, said Mohammed Hamdaoui, vice president of renewables and power at research firm Rystad Energy. Solar power is also often less effective in extremely hot conditions: When the sun goes down, «people still need to run their air conditioners, because the temperature is still high and the demand is still high,» he said.

Families will have less money to spend on children’s clothing in the fall because they are paying their electric bill.

Executive Director of NEADA MARK WOLFE

“This is a really new economic problem,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Association of Energy Assistance Directors, which represents state directors who manage federal aid dollars for home energy costs.

NEADA estimated earlier this month that US consumers utility bills wold will be almost 12% higher this summer than the last, reaching an average of $578, compared to $517. Bills are expected to be even higher in the West and South Central region, which includes Texas, where users are expected to pay an average of $706 between June and August, up from $642 last year.

In many cases, Wolfe warned, “families will have less money to spend on children’s clothing in the fall because they are paying their electric bill. Until recently, that was not the case.»

While temperatures typically peak across much of the US in June and July, scientists who study heat waves say climate change has been driving those periods. more frequent and longer since the 1960s. About 84 million people are now under nationwide heat advisories, and parts of California, Oregon, and Idaho previously unaffected by the ongoing heat wave are now included in the advisories.

Relief organizations in some states not used to widespread air conditioning use are now dealing with extended periods of high demand. At Denver-based Energy Outreach Colorado, requests for bill payment assistance are up nearly 30% from the same period last year.

“It’s barely July and we’re already seeing almost 2,000 people calling every week, which is very unusual,” said Denise Stepto, director of communications.

Because many agencies traditionally view their LIHEAP programs as offering seasonal relief for home heating costs in the colder months, they often reduce the distribution of assistance during the summer. But recent heat extremes have pushed some of the groups to transition to year-round operations.

In 2021, Washington state used resources from the bipartisan CARES Act to bolster its home energy assistance fund by $30 million, according to Brian Sarensen, a program manager at the state department of commerce that administers the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, aid. That push allowed state officials to help more than 100,000 residents a year with utility bills and the installation of new air conditioners, up from 65,000 homes before the influx.

But the extra money has dried up, leaving Sarensen weighing tough decisions about how best to allocate funds this year.

“We may be sacrificing the amount of heating assistance we provide in the winter to get through the summer,” he said. “But at the same time, then you’re thinking: Am I letting someone freeze to death? It’s the Catch-22 of trying to provide everything to everyone who needs it, and just not having enough money to do it.

We may be sacrificing the amount of heating assistance we provide in the winter to keep it going in the summer.

Washington State LIHEAP Director Brian Sarensen

“We need to rethink the LIHEAP allocation formula,” he said.

The program, which is run by the Department of Health and Human Services, was created after the oil crisis of the 1970s to help Americans heat their homes, long before the effects of climate change were widely appreciated. Since then, there has been a near-constant tug-of-war between federal officials, state governments, and advocates over how to dole out a finite pool of relief money.

LIHEAP is funded at $6.1 billion through the end of September, and the House Appropriations Committee recently approved $4.1 billion in funding for 2024. Trustees had requested $9 billion.

Unlike safety net programs like Medicaid or food stamps, LIHEAP doesn’t guarantee payments to all eligible applicants, Wolfe said. If more qualified residents apply for help than the program can support, the funds simply dry up, even if the demand has not been met.

“There’s not enough money to do a year-round program” in states that need it the most, he said, despite extreme temperatures in more places during both seasons. He added that only 19 states and Washington, DC, ban utility shutoffs in the summer, while more than 40 ban them in the winter.

LIHEAP-funded agencies in several states told NBC News they began capping attendance this spring to maintain summer bookings. Some in areas that saw warm winters said that has helped stretch their resources further.

In Texas, state documents show that the maximum refrigeration allowance for low-income families was raised to $12,300 in 2022of $8,200, and will be stay at that level for the next fiscal year. That is partly due to the record $284 million in federal home energy assistance funds the state received from the American Rescue Plan, which Democrats approved on a partisan basis in 2021.

Overall, though, Wolfe said federal policies governing LIHEAP «have not caught up with reality» as climate change modifies the needs of vulnerable residents.

“All of this is preventable,” he said.