States attempt to help Americans facing rising energy costs
Some states are supplementing a federal program ahead of winter’s coldest months
State governments are trying to beef up their energy-assistance programs as rising heat costs strain more residents across the U.S. this winter.
Minnesota and New York are tapping federal funds to provide enhanced benefits for their states’ programs. New Hampshire passed legislation that gives additional help to lower-income households using funds from its budget surplus. And in Connecticut, utility providers are giving ratepayers $10 monthly credits to help offset rising costs and providing discounts to low-income households.
Heating costs for homes using natural gas are expected to rise 25% this winter compared with the previous winter, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Households heated by oil are expected to pay 45% more compared with last year.
Prices have been driven higher this year largely due to the disruption in energy markets caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increasing demand for fossil fuels, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
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Low-income residents have often struggled to keep their homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer. With the significant rise in costs for natural gas, heating oil, propane and electricity this year, in addition to forecasts for a colder winter in some places, more households are expected to need assistance this season.
"We’ve had a long period of very affordable home energy," said Mr. Wolfe, noting that this is the second year in a row where prices have risen sharply. "Those days might be over for at least the foreseeable future."
Congress has set aside $4.5 billion for heating assistance this winter through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. That is up from the more than $3 billion allocated annually pre-pandemic.
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The federal program, run through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, helps Americans cover home heating costs and unpaid utility bills. The program also helps residents repair homes to make them more energy efficient. Congress approved supplemental amounts during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr. Wolfe, however, said this year’s funding wasn’t enough to address the recent increases in energy prices. He said his organization estimates that about 20 million families nationwide are already behind on their utility bills. These families collectively owe about $16.1 billion as of August 2022, he said. That figure has doubled since late 2019, according to the NEADA.
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Normally, those who fall behind on bills during the winter are able to catch up with payments over the summer, but a hotter summer in 2022 required more cooling and thus higher bills.
In Wisconsin, there has been a flood of inquiries about the state’s energy-assistance program, said Tatyana Warrick, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Administration, which oversees the program.
"There is a lot of anxiety that folks are feeling with regards to rising costs, especially heating homes in the dead of winter," Ms. Warrick said.
Wisconsin’s energy-assistance program gave funds to nearly 200,000 households last winter, Ms. Warrick said. This year, the state is expecting that figure to grow and plans to be able to provide assistance to more than 200,000 households.
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Energy-assistance programs have been stalled in some places. In Maine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills unveiled an Emergency Winter Energy Relief Plan earlier this month that would give relief checks to families to help with their energy needs.
"Inflation and high energy prices are stretching the wallets of Maine people, in some cases forcing them to face the impossible choice of heating their homes, putting food on the table, or paying for other necessities," said Ms. Mills.
The plan was approved in the state’s House of Representatives by a vote of 125-16, but it didn’t pass the Senate, where a vote along party lines failed to receive the two-thirds majority needed to be implemented immediately.
Senate Republicans said their opposition to the plan came, in part, because there had been no public hearing on the issue. "Two brief conversations, among a few elected party leaders, is not adequate replacement for transparent, public consideration," Lisa Keim, assistant Senate minority leader, said in a statement on social media.
Maine Democrats in the Senate and House scheduled a public hearing for Wednesday.
Other states in the Northeast, like Rhode Island, have taken multiple actions to help residents with emergency assistance, including a direct reduction in electricity bills for those who qualify. Since August, the state has earmarked $6.8 million to help reduce the bills for approximately 39,000 low-income residents, said Robert Beadle, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. Mr. Beadle said the plan will result in approximate bill savings of $190 per customer.
Minnesota increased the maximum benefit for energy assistance from $600 to $1,500 this year. The state is planning to provide benefits to about 125,000 households this winter, about the same as last winter, said Grace Arnold, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which oversees the program.
"Longer term we want to be investing in more energy-efficient homes," Ms. Arnold said.
Since home-energy prices can be so volatile, Minnesota is also focusing on making homes more energy efficient, Ms. Arnold said. Minnesota is set to receive $76 million in federal funds, which the state will use to help residents weatherize their homes, she said.