Energy bills too high? Some can get help

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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.

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.

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.