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Energy bills too high? Some can get help

Highlights
  • Many power companies, utilities in the Sun Belt offer help to customers.
  • Funding for weatherization that cuts costs is a popular option for some.
  • Some utilities also offer discounted rates and level-payment plans.

Paying the electric bill during the hot summer months is a routine struggle for some people. For those who have lost jobs in the recent waves of layoffs, it could mean dipping into precious savings.

However, many power companies and utilities in the southern half of the United States, also known as the Sun Belt, offer various forms of assistance to customers who can't pay bills -- from home weatherization to discounted rates to emergency payments. The best time to seek help is as soon as you realize you need it rather than waiting until a bill is overdue.

Assistance in Arizona

Phoenix resident Nanci Miller took action to pre-empt payment problems. In the summer of 2007, Miller had to dip into savings to pay electric bills as high as $341 for a single month. "That was just for air conditioning, lights and TV," she says. But early in 2008, concerned about the coming summer's bills, she contacted the city for help.

The local electric utility, Arizona Public Service, or APS, which serves about 1 million residential customers statewide, provides funding to weatherize homes and apartment complexes for free to owners or tenants who qualify based primarily on income and need. APS spends more than $1 million annually on weatherization and works with local social service agencies to identify neighborhoods and apartment complexes where most residents qualify.

Miller qualified because she is older than 65 years old and lives on a fixed income in her one-story town house. Using APS funds, the city of Phoenix's Neighborhood Services insulated her high ceiling and installed a new energy-efficient air conditioning unit, a new AC filter and sun screens in her windows. They also moved the AC filter from a spot 12 feet high to a lower location that can be reached with a step stool. Last summer, Miller's highest monthly bill was less than $100.

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Besides weatherization, the utility also offers a variety of discount rates that lower electric bills every month. "On average, about 50,000 people are enrolled in our basic discount rate at any one time," says Jerry Mendoza, account executive in customer information and programs at APS.

APS also funds a crisis bill assistance program that will, through an agency, provide up to $400 for help paying a bill once a year. The crisis program is usually for low-income customers. However, people who've never needed help before and don't qualify for a low-income rate can use it under certain circumstances: if they've been laid off, suffered a medical emergency or experienced another urgent situation that makes it hard for them to pay bills.

Help in Florida and the Carolinas

Progress Energy serves 3.1 million customers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. Its Energy Neighbor Fund annually matches $1 million in donations from customers with a $1 million grant from the Progress Energy Foundation. These funds are used to help residents in distress. Like APS' crisis program, the Energy Neighbor Fund "is for people facing temporary hardships, such as a medical emergency or unemployment," says Suzanne Grant, Progress Energy Florida Inc. spokeswoman. The payment of up to $300, once per year is distributed through local social service organizations.

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