High power bill? NorthWestern, Energy Share, other programs can help
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Your power bill is likely going up, but you might qualify for help.
The Montana Public Service Commission recently approved a settlement that means NorthWestern Energy electric rates will be 24% higher than where they were in August 2022 — or 8% higher than a couple of weeks ago.
A couple of parties have filed motions telling the PSC it needs to reconsider its order, including one party that argues NorthWestern shareholders are getting $3.4 million more than they should out of Montanans.
Those motions don’t mean anything for your pocketbook right now, though.
In the meantime, you can check out programs that might help, including the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIEAP, through the state of Montana, Energy Share of Montana, and a couple of offerings through NorthWestern, such as rebates.
Low Income Energy Assistance Program
The upper income limit for a household of four to qualify for LIEAP is $57,300, according to an income guide. See other household sizes and corresponding income limits here.
NorthWestern doesn’t run the program, but the power company is encouraging people to see if they qualify.
“We have more customers who may be eligible for this program than apply,” said NorthWestern spokesperson Jo Dee Black.
A bonus? Black said if you qualify for LIEAP, you automatically get a discount from the utility as well.
“You don’t have to fill out any additional paperwork,” Black said.
Additionally, if you’re approved for LIEAP, you are eligible to have your home weatherized for free, Black said.
Apply for LIEAP, a program of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, anytime during the heating season, which runs from Oct. 1 through April 30.
If you have questions about your power bill that relate to a LIEAP application, call NorthWestern Energy at (888) 467-2669.
“We have resources to assist people as much as we can to get ready for the application,” Black said.
Energy Share Montana
Energy Share helps as many as 3,000 families a year with energy emergencies, according to its website. It’s a private nonprofit that estimates it has given $20 million in assistance over 35 years.
“The program is Montanans donating to help Montanans with heating emergencies,” Black said.
Instructions for how to apply are posted here. The nonprofit said it takes income into consideration, but because it’s privately funded, it’s not restricted to income limits.
“The need of the household, level of emergency and available funds are all factors that weigh heavily when determining who will receive Energy Share assistance,” according to the Energy Share website.
Budget Billing through NorthWestern
Your power bill may soar in the winter, but you might prefer to pay the same amount every month.
If you sign up for Budget Billing, NorthWestern bills you the same amount monthly based on your last 12 months of usage and current rates. The company reviews your account every quarter to make sure you’re not over- or underpaying.
“Budget Billing takes the guesswork out of your energy bill,” NorthWestern says. “It levels out the seasonal highs and lows and provides you with a predictable monthly energy bill to make it easier to budget for your energy costs.”
Black said this program has proven to be useful for many customers. You have to have a $0 balance to be eligible. More information is available here.
Also, if customers fall behind on their bills, Black said it’s better to call and make arrangements than letting the balance get to be unmanageable.
She also said customer service representatives live in Montana or South Dakota and are experienced here. They’re at (888) 467-2669.
“We always hope people call. We are here to help,” Black said.
Virtual Home Energy Audit
Customers know that if they can save energy, they’ll save money, so they often call NorthWestern, said Pamela Hanson-Burch, a demand side management specialist with the utility.
In the thick of the pandemic, NorthWestern started doing its home energy audits virtually, and it’s encouraging that approach now. With limited staff, it’s a benefit in the winter especially, NorthWestern said.
“We all know what winter is like in Montana,” Hanson-Burch said.
For the audit, an energy specialist and customer use an application that’s like a Facetime call, and the energy specialist tours the customer’s home and asks questions about how they use power, Hanson-Burch said.
They walk from room to room, look at window and door seals, lightbulbs, water heaters (typically, the specialists recommend setting them at 120 degrees), space heaters, filters and more. The audit takes about an hour.
“It brings energy awareness to the customer,” Hanson-Burch said.
Once the virtual assessment is complete, the specialist puts together a comprehensive report that’s personalized to the customer’s home. It may estimate how much natural gas could be saved with a programmable thermostat, for example.
The report also shares how much money the customer can save through a rebate, she said, although NorthWestern does not keep track of average savings from the audits.
Because ratepayers fund the program, it’s only available to NorthWestern customers. In other words, Energy West customers in Great Falls don’t qualify.
Call (800) 823-5995 to schedule an appointment or fill out this form.
Natural gas and electric customers have access to rebates from NorthWestern as well.
An Energy-Star rated air purifier earns a $100 rebate, and a smart strip surge protector earns $12.50, according to the list posted on NorthWestern’s website.
Smart strips are “really cool,” Hanson-Burch said.
They ensure you’re not paying for wasted energy from an “energy vampire,” like your cellphone charger, gaming equipment or cable boxes. Even if you unplug your phone from an outlet, a small amount of energy is still flowing through, but the smart strip shuts that down.
Small steps make a big difference, too, Hanson-Burch said: Turn off your lights if you’re not in the room, turn down your thermostat when you leave the house or at night, and air dry your laundry because dryers are one of the biggest consumers of energy.
Editor’s note: The increase in electric rates since August 2022 to current has been corrected to be 24%. In April, the increase was projected to be 28%, and since then, a change in rate collection means the increase from summer 2022 is 24%.
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