Agencies and nonprofits that help Coloradans who are struggling to pay their utility bills are facing their own challenges as high natural gas prices and cold weather keep the calls and applications for assistance rolling in.
People in the Denver area and across the state have seen their bills jump dramatically, in some cases double, over the last two to three months. As a result, staffers at the Colorado Low-Income Energy Assistance Program and Energy Outreach Colorado talk of uncharted territory and record levels of calls.
“At this moment we are keeping up and we have the resources and we have partners,” said Denise Stepto, EOC spokeswoman. “There are ways we are able to do this, but we don’t know how long this lasts, how big it gets. It’s unprecedented.”
Applications to Colorado LEAP, which distributes federal money, are about 10% higher than last year, said Theresa Kullen, the program’s manager. So far, the program has received roughly 87,000 applications, compared with 100,000 in 2022.
“I think we’re on pace to be pretty close to a record year of applicants,” Kullen said.
The program gives people who qualify a one-time lump sum in the winter to help with heating bills. The amount is based on income, household size, the type of dwelling and fuel used. This year, the size of the awards range from $250 to $1,000.
The program runs Nov. 1 through April 30.
Kullen doesn’t know how many people have gone through their benefits because of the higher-than-normal bills. “I have heard from a few people that the benefit amount just isn’t enough and we’re hearing that over and over and over again,” she said.
The federal government increased states’ grants late last year because of the rising natural gas prices nationwide. Colorado got an additional $9 million. Kullen expects another infusion of federal money to complete the state’s allocation.
“We do hope to do a supplemental increase to increase benefits across the board at a later time, but it’s too early in the heating season to know whether or not we have that flexibility. It will depend on the number of applications that we receive,” Kullen said.
Denice Crawford is among those who saw her utility bill at least double in one month. She said her bill in November was $180 and then shot up to $505 in December. The Lakewood woman received $369 in energy assistance.
“That doesn’t even cover one month,” Crawford said of the aid.
Crawford is on a plan through Xcel Energy-Colorado that allows her to average out her monthly utility payments. The balance is paid at the end of the year. She had to shell out $500 at the end of 2022 after gas prices rose.
“I was getting to where I could finally pay all my bills on my own, financial freedom and stability,” Crawford said. “This basically just set me back.”
Jocelyn Miller contacted Xcel Energy after seeing the bill for her business go from under $200 in the fall to more than $600 in December. She pays a set amount each month. The total that will have to be covered continues to grow, “so you’re still kind of chasing your tail.”
Miller said the paperwork is confusing and she gets different answers when she calls Xcel Energy with questions. But she has some breathing space and isn’t as fearful as she was about having her power cut off.
The U.S. wholesale natural gas price average increased more than 53% from 2021 to 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. The $6.45 per million British thermal units was the highest average since 2008.
Xcel Energy said customers will see slightly lower natural gas bills from Feb. 1 through March 31 because of a recent decline in wholesale prices. Average residential gas bills will be nearly $18 less a month and bills for small businesses will be roughly $83 less a month.
Xcel filed a similar decrease with regulators in November. Regulated utilities like Xcel Energy pass through gas price increases or decreases to customers without a markup, spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said.
“We recognize inflation is hitting everyone hard, and while wholesale natural gas prices have decreased, customers may still need help with their energy bills,” Aguayo said in an email.
The utility works with state and local agencies and advocates to provide help to customers. People having trouble paying their bills can contact Xcel directly to arrange a payment plan, she added.
Energy Outreach Colorado, a nonprofit started by the Colorado General Assembly in 1989, works with LEAP and offers such services helping pay bills, replacing faulty furnaces and making a home more energy efficient.
In 2021, lawmakers approved surcharges of 75 cents each on investor-owned utilities’ gas and electric bills to help low-income customers. That revenue has made an important difference to Energy Outreach, spokeswoman Stepto said.
“Without that money, we would have a challenge being able to support people,” Stepto said.
The week before Christmas Day, 14,894 people called the organization’s help line. The same week in 2021, the total number of calls was around 5,700, Stepto said. The number of applications for assistance with utility payments has risen by 20% from last year.
“This is a perfect storm for all of us because the cost of food is up, the cost of living is up, rents are high, housing is high,” Stepto continued. “This is a basic human need. We believe that being able to be warm and safe in your home is a basic requirement.”
For more about Xcel Energy’s energy assistance programs, go to xcelenergy.com/EnergyAssistance or call 1-800-895-4999. People can call about other programs by calling 1-866-HEAT-HELP or 1-866-432-8435.
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