October 2018: LIHEAP News Wrap Up

LIHEAP News from Across the Country

Writing and reporting for the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance: Jake Brown

Rising oil prices drove the headlines heading into the true start of the fall LIHEAP season, sending home heating prices up nearly 20% already last month in the Northeast, with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority unveiling the unfortunate news for rural residents around the region that “the average price of home heating oil in the eight counties in and around the Capital Region was $3.06 per gallon as of Oct. 1, up from $2.54 in the same week a year ago. It's also up 5 cents from just the week before.  Last winter, the price that would begin at $2.55 per gallon in early October would go on to spike at $3.03 per gallon in late January, though it fell a few cents thereafter.  Propane, according to NYSERDA, is priced at $2.96 per gallon this week, up 9 percent from a year ago.”

Alarmed by the spike in prices, New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sounded one about the importance of keeping LIHEAP funding at competitively-high levels to help offset the rise in home heating costs, reasoning as many of her peers do this time of year that “no New Yorker should be forced to choose between keeping their homes warm during the winter, or cool during the summer, and paying for their food or rent.  LIHEAP is a lifeline for over 1 million New Yorkers who rely on this critical program to cover their energy bills."  Already hard at work around the Empire State, which receives the most program assistance of any state in the country, the Daily Gazette quoted Schenectady County as just one such example of demand going right up along with the price of heating oil, noting that after disbursing $1,063,000 in assistance to 3,122 households.


Bringing into focus just how important the price of oil is for rural LIHEAP recipients not just in terms of their cost of commuting to and from work, but quite literally keeping their home warm upon returning home, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Maryland’s Communications Director Lee Giercyznski shared via a cover story with the Daily Standard the importance “as we get close to cold weather (of making sure…) your furnace is prepared to keep you safe during the winter months…All residential customers may contact their electric or natural gas company and request budget billing at any time. Each monthly bill will be the same amount. The company may adjust the bill four times a year, up or down, depending on the customer’s usage.  This protects you from huge spikes in your heating bill, you can budget more efficiently for heating costs.” 


Along with the bill-management assistance they provide customers, Director Giercyznski offered some helpful tips on how to prepare ahead of time for a warmer home, highlighting the fact that “a clean filter gives your furnace a longer life. A dirty filter restricts air flow so your furnace works harder and it can circulate dust through your home as well.  Keep a space heater a minimum of 3 feet from curtains, clothing or anything that might catch fire and turn it off if you’re leaving the room. If you plug a space heater into electric outlets, make sure it’s not overloading the circuits.” 


Virginia Natural Gas was taking precautions to help ensure as smooth a transition from fall temperatures into winter for its customers across the vast rural state, the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily reported that with “the colder weather is on its way and some household budgets may be unable to keep up with the demands of using more energy to heat their homes.  Virginia Natural Gas wants to help its customers better prepare for this year’s heating season by reminding those who may be eligible for financial assistance of programs available that could help offset winter heating costs.”


Meanwhile, up in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was playing hardball with the utility providers to ensure that those struggling families who did fall behind on their electric bills in the middle of winter and had their power disconnected, “issuing an order, effective immediately, making it easier for those who have had their gas or electric turned off due to nonpayment turned back on. Customers can now get their utilities back by paying ten percent of the money they owe and entering into a payment plan.  Upon passage of the utility relief, the crowd of over a dozen members and supporters of the George Wiley Center in attendance broke into applause. They had been holding Halloween themed signs encouraging the PUC to take a stand against National Grid and for people in need.”


Delivering a powerful reminder of just how desperate winter is for some in spite of bright spots like the Holidays, PCU Commissioner Abigail Anthony reasoned her decision had been based on “the George Wiley Center (providing)…qualitative evidence that reducing down payments improves access to heat, light, refrigeration, food preparation, warm water, communication, electronic medical devices and all other basic needs utility services provide.  I ran through the customer costs and benefits and societal costs and benefits. Participants benefit from all the items the George Wiley Center listed in their memo…Society may realize reduced greenhouse gas emissions and other criteria air pollutants, because customers will continue to use grid-mix or gas supply instead of less efficient resources – for instance, using the oven to provide space heating or burning wood or delivered fuels.  Society may benefit from increased economic activity resulting from reducing customers energy burden…While we don’t have a quantification of these costs and benefits, I would not be surprised if the customer and societal benefits exceed the cost.”


With equally-as-frozen cold fronts fast descending on the Midwest, Community Action Agencies were taking just that to ensure that the maximum number of households possible received help thanks to what the Pace CAA announced was a new points-based system vs. the amount a customer owes in determining eligibility, with Lisa Ritterskamp, Energy Assistance Manager explaining that courtesy of “changes in guidelines made for this program year should allow more households to qualify and more assistance to be provided.  Those changes include an increase in the poverty guideline income limit, a benefit increase for bulk fuel households, and removal of the stipulation that required a Utility Affidavit to be completed for those whose utility bill was not in their name.  Again this year, regulations allow households with utilities included in their monthly rent to apply for assistance.  New this year, households with bulk fuel will receive more points”


Over in Ohio, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown helped secure a head-turning $155 million in energy assistance funding for his home state just in time for the drop in temperatures, arguing in a plea that mirrored the message being delivered by similar politicians and advocates around the country heading into the same season that “Ohioans shouldn’t have to choose between keeping warm or putting food on the table.  These critical funds will help ensure Ohio families and seniors are able to keep their homes warm this winter… This funding has been an indispensable lifeline during challenging economic times, helping to ensure that recipients do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and paying for other necessities like food or medicine.  On average, low-income families and seniors spend a higher proportion of their income on energy, and for many states, October marks the start of the heating season, creating an additional constraint on these household budgets.”


Up in Minnesota, arguably among the traditionally coldest-weather states in the Midwest, even as the land of 10,000 lakes was just beginning to see them freeze over, “even modest increases in heating use and energy prices can be a financial challenge for low-income households,” the Austin Daily Herald pointed out as a prelude to their announcement that “more than $116 million in federal funding to help low-income Minnesotans pay their heating bills this winter” was coming to the rescue. Spotlighting Commerce Commissioner Jessica Looman’s echo of her colleagues around the country that “the Energy Assistance Program is an essential safety net for Minnesotans who struggle to pay their energy bills and stay warm throughout the winter.”  In an effort to speed up the release of those funds, which “last year the program served more than 126,000 Minnesota households, with an average grant of about $545,” the Commissioner added of those actions that “local service providers have already received and reviewed thousands of energy assistance applications, and payments for many who qualify may begin as early as this week.”


With the conditions brought on by the cold fronts continuing concern out as far as Alaska, Jasmin Simeon of The Aniak Traditional Council announced her tribe had their own preparations for the coming chill were well underway with “winter is coming. And in the village of Aniak, that means people are saving up to cover high heating costs.”  Especially important in the arctic’s legendary below-zero temperatures, Simeon explained why it was so important to be ready to help families in need on a moment’s notice, because “basically, it’s a life-threatening emergency or something that’s going to damage the health of the family or severely impact everyday life, so that means that I have 48 hours to provide heating assistance to that family.  We’re able to cover a broader range of families and people, and those people who might not qualify for other assistance such as general food stamps and stuff like that.  I encourage people to always call me. You can call me and say, 'Hey, I don’t know if I’m going to be eligible' and I tell them 'Okay, how much do you think you make?' And then I can pull up my income matrix and say 'Okay, yeah, come apply.' We’ll see what we can do because the main object is to reduce heating costs and improve our quality of life.”