Phoenix would never have boomed into a sprawling metro area of more than 4 million people if it weren’t for air conditioning. It's over 100 degrees here almost a third of the year, and air conditioning allows the region to function. But as the temperatures soar, so does the cost of cooling.
At the end of June, temperatures were hitting record highs in Phoenix – in the 100-teens. And 66-year-old Richard Abbington was on the brink of losing power, and therefore, his air conditioning.
“Usually at the end of the month, that's when things get chaotic,” Abbington said recently from his small, sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment. “You know because I am out of money. A lot of times I am out of food.”
Abbington suffered a stroke three years ago and has lived off a modest monthly disability check ever since.
He’s enrolled in a utilities program called M-Power that lets him pay for his power as he uses it. A box, about the size of a modem, sits on his kitchen counter and tracks how much credit he has left on his account.
“It’ll go to beeping when you get low credit, it will let you know,” Abbington said.
At the end of last month, it began to beep. He was a few days away from getting his disability check and he had no money to replenish his credit. Then, everything shut off. The lights, the appliances, and the A/C.
“It was hot, and it was muggy in here,” Abbington said. “I just opened the windows up, you know, and let it be whatever it was going to be, you know, I couldn’t do nothing else. I'm glad I didn’t have no food in the fridge because if I had everything I had would have spoiled.”
The next day, relatives loaned Abbington money and he got his electricity back immediately. The pay-as-you-go program, which is administered by the Salt River Project utility company, is saving him from having his power service completely disconnected. Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, is piloting a similar program.
Each weekday more than 400 households with traditional power service that are delinquent on their bills are scheduled to have their power turned off by those two utilities. That’s usually a last resort.
But when the A/C does actually go out, it comes with health risks.
“Heat deaths are the number one cause of death from weather-related issues in the United States,” said Sharon Harlan, a sociologist at Arizona State University.
Last year, 43 of the 102 heat-associated deaths in Maricopa County happened indoors, according to the county health department.
“In many of these cases, there is no air conditioning or the air conditioning is not turned on,” Harlan said.
A typical summer electricity bill here is $180 a month and up to two-thirds of it can be due to air conditioning costs, according to APS.
There are discount and charitable programs for needy customers. And every year, the federal government puts aside money to help low-income people pay their energy bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP. Funding for the program, however, has been shrinking in recent years.
“The need is great, and the resources to serve is not so great,” said Cynthia Zwick, who works on poverty issues with the Arizona Community Action Association. “So there’s a huge gap in what actually the funding will support.”
Last year, Arizona got nearly $22 million in federal LIHEAP funds. That was enough to assist an estimated 32,000 households with air conditioning costs, and 17,000 households with heating costs, but that’s only a tiny fraction of the households in poverty in the state.
The formula for giving out LIHEAP funds favors cold weather states over warm states. So Connecticut, a state with a smaller population than Arizona, got more than three times the funding.
Zwick is part of a network of advocates trying to change the formula.
“All we are asking for is an equal distribution of those funds, based on the numbers of people living in poverty, numbers of people unemployed, heating and cooling degree days,” Zwick said.
Meanwhile, the local offices that give out the funds are overwhelmed by requests for help. The City of Phoenix last year registered 120,000 calls for emergency assistance, but could only help one in ten with energy bills.
“People start calling in. It’s busy, it’s busy, it’s busy, they are calling over and over,” Zwick said. “It’s kind of like when you are trying to win the radio contests. There are so many calls that often they don’t get through.”
This month, Richard Abbington was one of the lucky ones who did get through to Phoenix’s Sunnyslope Family Service Center, which administers LIHEAP funds as well as grants from public utilities.
“I just kept redialing, I programmed the number into my phone and kept pushing it,” Abbington said. It took him weeks of persistence. “It was hot and a lot of people needed help.”
He was given an appointment and was ultimately awarded more than $400 for his electricity bill.
“Everything just opened up for me, you know, I feel relieved,” Abbington said. “I don’t have to worry about this electricity now, you know.”
But with temperatures on the rise across the Southwest, the risk of losing A/C may become more widespread.
“The problems show up first in the vulnerable populations, that have less access to the technology,” Harlan said. “But the problems will grow, and we can’t ignore the fact that the system itself is at risk.”
Power outages are predicted to increase in the future as a result of climate change, said Harlan.
And that will impact everyone who depends on cooled air for survival.