Power bills to spike this winter, but money available to help customers

Energy assistance supervisor: ‘We have money to get out’

By: - December 6, 2021 3:47 pm

Power bills will go up this winter, but financial assistance is available. (Provided by Karolina Grabowska via Pexels.com)

People are already submitting applications to get help to pay their energy bills this winter spurred in part by an estimated 47 percent to 62 percent increase in heating costs for residential customers.

“We have money to give out with this added funding, and we certainly want to use it,” said Lisa Schindler, of the Human Resource Council District XI.

NorthWestern Energy said individual use varies, but the jump translates into another $14.09 a month on a residential bill for the average customer using 10 dekatherms a month, or $70.45 for the winter season compared to last year. The cost would be $21 a month, or $105 for the season, for a customer using 15 dekatherms a month.

However, the hike in costs was anticipated, and there’s additional money available to help, said Schindler, supervisor of LIHEAP, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, at the Human Resource Council.

“The American Rescue Plan added funds to the LIHEAP benefits,” Schindler said. “So there was a significant increase in what people could potentially qualify for in anticipation of the rising costs of heating.”

For example, if a person typically qualifies for $500 in assistance for the winter season, they will qualify for an extra $250 this year, she said. She said people may be able to get help for past due balances as well.

In Mineral, Missoula and Ravalli counties, LIHEAP generally helps 3,500 to 4,000 households a season. Schindler said the program already has received 2,000 applications in the first two months of a seven-month season.

“We’ve certainly started out with a bang, so we’ll see how it keeps progressing throughout the season,” Schindler said.

She said the point of LIHEAP is to defray the costs of the added expense of winter heating, but not to pay the whole bill. However, she also said it appears the federal infusion was intended to keep pace with the anticipated increase in natural gas prices this winter.

She also said some utilities offer additional help to people who are eligible for LIHEAP.

“Every little bit helps in the long run,” Schindler said.

NorthWestern said global demand and limited production this year has pushed up the prices of natural gas, although the rate to deliver the fuel has not changed.

The most recent outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration anticipates volatility in natural gas prices driven in part by evolving consumer behavior in the pandemic and also winter temperatures.

In a news release, the Montana Public Service Commission encouraged people to reach out to their utility to learn about options that allow customers to pay a set monthly fee based on their annual use.

“Montana’s regulated natural gas utilities, including NorthWestern Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. and Energy West Montana Inc., are forecasting residential bills to be 47 percent to 62 percent higher compared with bills last winter,” said Erik Wilkerson, executive director of the Public Service Commission, in a statement. “Utilities buy natural gas supplies when the price is lower and also store supplies for use in the winter to mitigate gas supply cost increases for customers, but this year, natural gas prices are higher nationally and globally.”

Public Service Commission public policy and consumer relations coordinator and attorney Dan Stusek said in the 2021 heating season, the agency received roughly 8,800 power shutoff requests, and it approved a “small fraction,” an estimated 10 percent.

Shutoffs during the winter months are limited and require approval of the Public Service Commission.

Help with Power Bills

From the Public Service Commission:  The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Low-Income Energy Assistance pays part of winter energy bills for eligible people and most utilities offer LIEAP recipients discounts on their bills.

The Montana DPHHS Weatherization Program helps participants improve the heating efficiency of their homes. Information on LIHEAP and the Weatherization Program is available at https://dphhs.mt.gov/hcsd/energyassistance/.

Montana Energy Share provides emergency bill assistance. To learn more, go to energysharemt.com.

From NorthWestern Energy: Ways to save from the utility are online here. “NorthWestern Energy asks customers concerned about their winter heating bill to contact us,” the utility said. “We have options such as Budget Billing, payment plans and can refer customers to assistance programs.” The customer service team number is (800) 245-6977.

From the Human Resource Council: Lisa Schindler, LIHEAP supervisor, said emergency rental assistance can help with fuel bills as well. People are applying for other programs too, although she said it wasn’t clear how other programs might affect LIHEAP. Find the LIHEAP application here. Additionally, she said money is available from federal relief aid to help pay water bills, possibly for just one year or on a trial basis. She said when staff process heating applications, they’ll ask about water obligations as well. “That can help the budget moving forward,” she said.

Shutoff Rules from the PSC

(1) During the period Nov. 1 to April 1 and on any day when the reported ambient air temperature at 8 a.m. is at or below freezing or if the U.S. Weather Service forecasts a snowstorm or freezing temperatures for the succeeding 24-hour period, no termination of residential service may take place if the customer establishes that he or she is unable to pay, or able to pay only installments, that he or she or a member of the household is at least 62 years old or that he or she or a member of the household is handicapped.

(2) No termination of service may take place during the period of Nov. 1 to April 1 except with specific prior approval of the Commission.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”