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Energy bills too high? Some can get help

In Florida, Progress Energy works with local county governments to implement the Neighborhood Energy Saver Program, which weatherizes homes at no cost for low-income customers in select areas. The company is considering a similar program for the Carolinas. The program, which began in 2006, has weatherized about 4,500 homes in Orlando and St. Petersburg, Fla. "The average customer saves about $150 per year on their electric bill after the weatherization is done," Grant says.

In the Carolinas and Florida, Progress Energy offers a delayed-payment option to residents who are 55 and older and who are on a fixed income. The utility also offers level-billing plan, charging the same amount every month, for any customer in good standing. "Customers typically encounter difficulties in peak periods in August, December and January," says Jeff Brooks, Progress Energy Carolinas Inc. spokesman. "If they can balance that out through the year, the monthly charge is predictable and they can budget for it."

Support in Texas

Austin Energy in Austin, Texas, makes available a broad spectrum of assistance to its 345,000 residential customers. As with most other assistance programs, the guidelines are mostly, but not exclusively, based on income qualifications, and the utility works with local governments and social services agencies to implement its programs.

Austin Energy will spend up to $1,400 per home for weatherization at no cost to the customer and it will also perform repairs, such as replacing broken window panes or replacing exterior hollow-core doors with solid-core or metal ones. To qualify for free weatherization, household income can't exceed certain levels and a home can't be worth more than $150,000.

There's also a recycling and replacement program for refrigerators, window air conditioning units and dishwashers. "Any home could get all three appliances depending on the appliance condition," says Steve Saenz, program coordinator for energy-efficiency services at Austin Energy.

The utility's discount program can greatly reduce monthly bills. For qualifying residents, the rate can drop to 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, with all service charges for electricity, water and wastewater removed. "With the electric discounts, if people are frugal, they can get their monthly bill down to $25 or $35," says Valerie Harris, community services coordinator for Austin Energy.

Austin Energy qualifies people based on their participation in Medicare, state-funded Medicaid and similar low-income assistance programs. The utility's Plus One program, funded in part by utility customer donations and distributed through community-based social service agencies, will pay customer electric bills in $50 and $100 increments. "Anyone who seeks help can get help," Harris says -- as long as they qualify.

Other breaks in the Sun Belt

In Mississippi, Entergy residential customers can get help, as can Mississippi Power customers (through Southern Company).

Customers of Arkansas Entergy and Louisiana Entergy can get aid from these affiliated power companies. Dominion customers in Virginia can find help, as can Dominion customers residing elsewhere. In the Carolinas, Duke Energy customers can get some relief from summer cooling costs.

If you're in a bind, check the Web site of your utility to see if it offers some type of assistance. If your electric company doesn't have such a program, your state might. For example, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia offer some respite to their residents. Check your state's main Web page for consumer assistance information.

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