How Affordable is Your Electricity? Comparing Electric Rates, Bills, and Burden

, Senior Energy Analyst | October 26, 2018, 9:30 am EDT
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Nearly 1 in 3 US residential household struggles to pay their electric bill. With so many folks struggling, it raises a question: What makes electricity “affordable?”

Do you know what you pay for electricity?

It’s okay if you don’t. A lot of folks probably don’t.

The most commonly used data source for calculating the average retail electricity rate* is from the Energy Information Agency (EIA), part of the US Department of Energy. EIA reports data on electricity price ($/kWh). This value takes your average monthly bill ($), divided by the average energy consumption in terms of kilowatt-hours (kWh).

Straightforward enough.

Using this average makes Southern and Western states look like they have affordable energy (Map 1). I often hear utilities and government officials in the South bragging how low their rates are. They’ll point to the high rates of Massachusetts, California, New York, or Hawaii for comparison.

Map 1: Average residential retail electric rates. Higher rates tend to be concentrated in the northeast, California, Alaska, and Hawaii. (EIA, 2017)

Looking at this map, California, and Northeastern states do look expensive…

But such conclusions aren’t as cut and dry as you might think.

At best, rates tell you very little. At worst, fixating on rates could mislead people into thinking electricity in some regions is more affordable than it really is.

Why?

Rates don’t reflect how much energy the average customer consumes. Bills, on the other hand, are what households pay every month.

Bills, bills, bills

Bills are a better metric on how affordable electricity is because that’s what you have to pay each month. For many struggling households, the total electricity bill plays a determining factor in how much money you’ll have to spend on other things.

And, somewhat unintuitively, bills are comparatively lower in many of the “high rates” states (Map 2). Meanwhile, the “low rates” southeastern states begin to look expensive.

When we were only looking at rates, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina all looked like they had affordable electricity. However, residential customers in those states have some of the highest bills in the country.

Why?

Low bill states tend to have policies that enable customers to lower their bills. Rooftop solar, market competition, and even rate structure can translate into savings for customers. But mostly, the credit belongs to energy efficiency.

Map 2: Average residential electric bills. Looking at bills, rather than rates, helps illuminate where customers are paying more for electricity. (EIA, 2017)

Massachusetts which had the 4th highest rates but the 36th lowest bills. Massachusetts is ranked 1st in energy efficiency by ACEEE.

California, which had the 7th highest rates but the 15th lowest bills. California is ranked 2nd in energy efficiency by ACEEE.

Louisiana has the 2nd lowest rates but only the 34th lowest bills. Louisiana is ranked 47th by ACEEE in terms of energy efficiency.

Mississippi has the 15th lowest rates but has the 10th highest bills. It was ranked 44th by ACEEE in terms of energy efficiency.

Other “low rates” states, like Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, all have lower than average rates but higher than average bills. These states also rank low in energy efficiency.

But even bills only tell part of the story.

Electricity burden

While the average bill in Hawaii or Connecticut is higher than the national average (Hawaii has the highest average bill, Connecticut has the 3rd highest), average household income in those states is also higher than the national average. In both Connecticut and Hawaii, the average household spends 2.3% of their annual income on electricity. The national average is also 2.3%.

Energy burden is the percent of one’s income you spend on all energy (electricity, heating, gasoline, etc.…). Electricity is one part of the energy burden (Map 3).

Map 3: Percent of pre-tax income that goes to electricity bill (Electricity Burden). Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina all have below-average rates—but residential consumers in those states suffer the highest electricity burden. (Pre-tax income data: US Census Bureau, 2017.)

The analysis presented here is limited to averages. The average income. The average consumption of electricity.

This analysis doesn’t account for intrastate variances in household incomes. Nor does it account for differences in electricity consumption. It is a simple comparison of the average bill as a percent of average income. Far from a perfect measure, but it’s still the next step in looking at electricity affordability.

Looking at averages isn’t to say that folks in states with lower than average electricity burden don’t also struggle to pay their bills. Yes, lower income folks do consume less but they do typically spend a higher percentage of their income on energy overall. The energy burden on low-income households is real and substantial. It is real in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia, regardless of averages.

So what good is this analysis?

The analysis does illustrate how misleading the focus on rates is.

Bills—what people actually pay—can look very different from rates. Focusing on rates distracts from the important policy question: How can we ensure that energy is affordable?

This analysis highlights that the low rates of the South are a poor indication of electric affordability in those states.

Next month I’ll be presenting at an annual conference of consumer advocates. Consumer advocates have long been focused on electricity affordability. Energy efficiency is a great step in making electricity more affordable. Energy efficiency helps avoid or defer expensive investments that utilities would otherwise have to make, which means it helps all customers save money. Energy efficiency helps consumers lower their bills. And, energy efficiency policies and programs can target efforts to make sure that all consumer groups can benefit and participate in efficiency programs.

What follows is a list of states and ranks for their rates, bills, ACEEE energy efficiency score, and percent of income spent on electricity (burden). The number in each cell reflects that state’s rank, from low to high. So, for example, Alabama is the 28th cheapest state for rates, but the worst state in terms of electricity burden.

State State Rates Bills ACEEE Burden
Alabama AL 28 50 43 51
Alaska AK 50 45 41 21
Arizona AZ 27 46 17 42
Arkansas AR 4 22 34 43
California CA 45 15 2 6
Colorado CO 24 3 14 2
Connecticut CT 49 48 5 28
Delaware DE 36 38 22 32
District of Columbia DC 31 9 12 1
Florida FL 18 44 23 46
Georgia GA 22 43 38 41
Hawaii HI 51 51 16 29
Idaho ID 3 14 26 30
Illinois IL 32 5 13 7
Indiana IN 25 28 40 37
Iowa IA 26 18 24 23
Kansas KS 35 31 46 34
Kentucky KY 9 29 29 44
Louisiana LA 2 34 47 47
Maine ME 42 4 15 10
Maryland MD 37 47 10 15
Massachusetts MA 48 36 1 9
Michigan MI 40 11 11 26
Minnesota MN 34 12 8 8
Mississippi MS 15 42 44 50
Missouri MO 20 35 33 38
Montana MT 12 7 37 27
Nebraska NE 13 21 45 22
Nevada NV 23 16 30 24
New Hampshire NH 47 32 21 11
New Jersey NJ 41 17 18 4
New Mexico NM 30 1 36 18
New York NY 44 19 6 12
North Carolina NC 10 27 27 39
North Dakota ND 5 25 49 25
Ohio OH 29 24 31 33
Oklahoma OK 6 26 39 40
Oregon OR 7 20 7 19
Pennsylvania PA 38 30 19 31
Rhode Island RI 46 23 3 17
South Carolina SC 33 49 42 49
South Dakota SD 21 33 48 35
Tennessee TN 8 40 35 45
Texas TX 14 39 25 36
Utah UT 12 2 20 3
Vermont VT 43 8 4 16
Virginia VA 17 41 28 20
Washington WA 1 13 9 5
West Virginia WV 20 37 50 48
Wisconsin WI 39 6 32 13
Wyoming WY 16 10 51 14

This “rate” isn’t the same as the variable rate of your electric bill—the amount you pay for each kWh you use or the amount of money you save for each kWh you conserve. For this analysis, I’ve only looked at the retail rates and bills of residential customers.

If you enjoyed this post and if the topic of energy affordability is of interest to, take a look at the follow-up analysis, which dives deeper into the topic of energy affordability.  

Note: an earlier version of this blog displayed the incorrect rankings of states, the correct rankings were updated on March 9, 2020. 

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  • Eric Madden

    Using the electric costs vs the total energy costs seems to skew this data, I’ve lived in Wisconsin (5) and Georgia (42) and our total energy costs per year were pretty comparable. The part that is missing is the huge amount of gas required for heating in the northern states.

    • JDanielUCS

      Thanks for reading and commenting Eric. Your points are well taken and I agree that “energy burden” should include the full spectrum of energy use.

      Like I say in the blog, this is only part of it and the purpose of showing this part is to illustrate how misleading rates are and not to assert that this particular snapshot is perfect. I agree that gas heating is a part of energy burden as is gasoline use for transportation. I paid a lot less per gallon for gasoline when I lived in TX compared to when I lived in HI, but I also had to drive a lot more (longer distances) in TX. Looking just at electric rates would be like just looking at gas prices, fixating on either paints an incomplete picture.

      I also hope that this analysis highlights that within any given state, regulators and legislators can help empower customers to lower their own bills by encouraging energy efficiency.

  • Eric Madden

    This seems pretty heavily

  • Tripp Tucker

    The “rate” should include reactive power (kVArh) along with the kWh for AC electricity. When we start accounting for both reactive power and real power, electricity will then allow for best choices to be truly analyzed, with rate design reflecting actual AC electricity use or supply. Greater electrical efficiency can be achieved with local reactive power control.