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September 25, 2008 3:00 am

Help with heating costs

Written by Tribune Staff

State, utility representatives offer assistance

Heating costs will be higher this year, but state and company officials say they believe they won't be as bad as predicted last summer.


Chris Petrie of the Wyoming Public Service Commission brought that prediction, along with information about programs, to help residents lower their bills or receive assistance in paying them to Powell last week.

Petrie told the small group in attendance that the commission visited Powell and other Wyoming communities because last summer's predicted increases in the cost of natural gas raised concerns about their impact on residents, particularly those on low or fixed incomes.

At the time, Petrie said, the outlook was for an increase of $300 to $350 over last winter's heating costs for months of November through April. Since then, he said, gas prices have moderated and “it hasn't been as bad as expected.”
Still, predictions are for average increased costs of $200 to $250 this year for the heating season. Petrie said the price for gas has been volatile, and prices could rise again.

Bob Morman of MDU added that gas prices last winter were relatively low, “so this year it seems like a big increase.”

Joining Petrie and Morman on the panel were Kimberley Sapp of the Department of Public Services in Powell, Ivan Williams of the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate and several representatives from Montana-Dakota Utilities and Rocky Mountain Power.

Sapp said her office has information on the state's Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which can help low-income residents pay heating bills, and in some situations, assist in weatherization. She said residents could contact her office for help.

Petrie gave information about other programs, including Wyoming Energy Share and Wyoming Energy savers.

Morman and Dave Moser of Rocky Mountain Power told the audience about programs their companies are establishing to help residents save energy.

Members of the audience asked questions about the cost of gas, including why gas produced in Wyoming is sent out of state, and whether gas is imported into Wyoming.

Petrie explained that Wyoming imports little gas, but the price still is determined by the world market. Gas produced in Wyoming, unless it is produced on state-owned lands, does not belong to the state, but to the companies that produced it, and those companies have the right to sell it for the market price.

In the past, Petrie said, capacity to transport Wyoming gas out of the area was limited and Wyoming consumers received a break, but that situation has changed.

Morman said Wyoming produces more gas than is used in the state, so gas is exported, but gas in Wyoming is cheaper than most parts of the country.

Petrie explained how the Public Service Commission regulates utility rates, and told the audience that the utilities “don't usually get (the full increases) they ask for.”

However, he said, the commission is obligated to allow utilities to pass on increases in the cost of gas.

“If they can't pass through the cost of gas, they'll be out of business in no time,” Petrie said.

Williams added that utility companies have to follow rules when setting rates and asking authorization for rate changes. Utilities are allowed a fair rate of return, and rates cannot exceed that rate of return.

Morman said MDU buys gas from approximately 20 suppliers to obtain the best price, and the company purchases and stores gas in the summer when it is cheaper to help offset the higher costs in the winter. However, he noted that summer use is rising as industry turns to natural gas to generate electricity rather than burning coal, and, as a result, gas is more expensive in the summer.

MDU is sensitive to prices, Morman said, because the company faces competition from other sources of heat, such as wood pellets.

In answer to a concern that it is difficult to find a qualified person to do an energy audit of one's home, Petrie said that is a concern in Wyoming, and his office has had a difficult time finding a person to audit the commission's offices in Cheyenne. He said it was beyond the commission's statutory powers to provide such auditors, but said some energy companies might provide that service.

“We hope you'll call us and we'll work with you to find where those resources are,” Petrie said.

Mark Hanson of MDU said people should be prepared for higher prices, and said the company will provide assistance if they are having difficulty paying bills.

“At least call MDU,” Hanson said. “We work with customers all the time.”

In addition, Petrie said people should pass on information about energy programs to family members, friends, neighbors and others.

“Get them pointed in the right direction,” Petrie said.

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Are you eligible?

With home heating costs likely to be much higher this winter than last, low-income Wyoming residents may need assistance paying their bills, and a state program can provide that help.

The Low Income Energy Assistance Program, administered by the Department of Family Services, was established to help low-income families who are experiencing difficulty paying the costs of heating. Priority is given to the elderly, the disabled and families with children under 16.

Eligibility for the program is based on household size and income.

The program can help pay bills for a household's primary heating source, but not for other heat sources. For example, it may help pay the gas bill if the home's primary source of heat is a gas furnace, but cannot pay the cost of operating supplemental electric space heaters in the home. In addition, the program cannot pay your electric bill if the heating source is included in the rent.

Kimberly Sapp, of the Department of Family Services office in Powell, said applications for assistance are available from her office but must be submitted to the LIEAP eligibility office in Laramie.

Sapp said her office can assist in determining eligibility and filling out the forms, and will fax the forms to the Laramie office for applicants.

Anyone who applies for assistance through the program also is applying for CRISIS and Weatherization assistance.

All approved LIEAP applications are forwarded to the Weatherization office, which will contact the applicant for an appointment to arrange an audit and may provide assistance in weatherizing the home to reduce energy use.

The CRISIS program assists individuals in specific instances, such as paying deposits, needing money for fuel, having no heat due to furnace problems, receipt of disconnect or shut-off notices or paying back bills. CRISIS assistance may be applied for at the time application is made or residents may call the LIEAP office for assistance later in the season.

Sapp said Family Services hopes to spread the word about LIEAP so more eligible residents apply.

“The more who apply, the better,” Sapp said. “There are so many people who struggle with heating bills, and they just don't know about the program that can help them.”

Applications were mailed in August to households who participated in the program last year. Those who did not may call the eligibility office toll free at 800-246-4221 to request an application packet. The Department of Family Services office in Powell also has application forms, and forms also are available online at dfsweb.state.wy.us/lieap/lieap.html.