Even with lower fuel costs, Pa. homeowners will seek energy assistance this winter

    A person walks down a snow covered street in Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    A person walks down a snow covered street in Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Applications for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program are being accepted starting this week. 

    Don’t let last weekend’s 70 degree weather fool you. Winter is coming, and quickly. Soon, it will be time to turn on the heater. But for many Pennsylvanians, that might be a luxury they can’t afford. 

    “We often hear from people just in the winter when they need help with an energy bill,” said Melinda Stanley, who oversees the utility and energy assistance program at the Commission on Economic Opportunity in Luzerne County. “Depending on how bitter cold the winter is and how expensive fuel is, people often just need a little assistance to pay the bill through till Spring.” 

    Fuel costs stay low

    Luckily for many homeowners, the cost of heating will likely remain fairly low this year. Both natural gas and heating oil saw slight price jumps over this time last year, but they are far below historic highs. 

    “Wholesale natural gas and electricity prices in Pennsylvania are roughly half of what they were ten years ago because the Marcellus Shale effect wasn’t being seen ten years ago,” said Terry Fitzpatrick, president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, referring to the gas extraction industry in Pennsylvania.  “It’s just a big bargain compared to ten years ago.”  

    Fitzpatrick said the utility companies his trade group represents have been investing some of those savings into infrastructure upgrades, so consumers won’t likely see a utility bill that is half of what it was ten years ago. But thanks to plentiful natural gas in Pennsylvania and a low cost of oil nationwide, homeowners should expect less of a burden than they may have felt in years past. 

    Besides supply, the other major factor that effects the cost of heating is how cold the winter is. Obviously, your heating bill will be higher over the course of a longer, colder winter. And a colder winter will also increase the wholesale price of heating fuel as demand increases. 

    “In the short run, when the wholesale market goes crazy like that and prices spike, it doesn’t flow through to your bill right away,” said Fitzpatrick. “But in the long run, anytime prices go up in the wholesale market, it will have some effect on what you pay. But it’s delayed.” 

    If Pennsylvania has a particularly long, cold winter, prepare to see your utility bill increase long after the snow banks have melted. 

    Assistance available

    Despite the low wholesale cost of fuel, analysts are expecting homeowners to pay slightly more for heat this winter than last year — thanks to a predicted colder winter. 

    On Tuesday, Pennsylvania put out a call for applications for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. This federal program gave the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services $185 million to help residents pay to heat their homes this winter.

    Residents at or below 150% of the federal poverty line can apply for grants that go directly to the utility company to help pay the heating bills. They can also apply for crisis grants to help repair heating equipment or get the house hooked up to the utility lines as needed. 

    “This federally-funded program provided hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians a warm place to live during last winter,” DHS secretary Ted Dallas said in a statement. “That number includes thousands of the commonwealth’s most vulnerable citizens including elderly, children, and individuals living with a disability.”

    The utility companies themselves also help low-income families get connected to heat in the winter. They are required to do a cold weather survey and ask homeowners who don’t have heat if they’d like to be connected before winter. If they can’t afford it, they are directed to LIHEAP or the company’s customer assistance programs that allow low-income households to pay on a sliding scale.

    Fitzpatrick says statewide, utility companies put $380 million a year towards these programs. 

    “That number is somewhat less than it was ten years ago,” said Fitzpatrick. “But that’s because the need is less as prices have gone down.” 

    In Luzerne County, the Commission on Economic Opportunity connects residents with these different sources of funding. Even with over $500 million of funding available to help homeowners with heating bills, Stanley says it’s always a case of “wait and see.”

    “When the price of fuel is low and winter is warm, for the most part, I do believe there are enough resources,” said Stanley. “But when the winter is absolutely bitter and the fuel prices are high, sometimes there aren’t enough resources to go around.”

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