People are already submitting applications to get help to pay their energy bills this winter, spurred in part by an estimated 47% to 62% 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.