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Emergency Aid For Electricity Bills Expiring, Demand Expected To Grow In Winter

Amy Ensign.jpg
Kayla Desroches
/
Yellowstone Public Radio
Amy Ensign in her office at the Human Resources Development Council in Billings on Aug 12, 2020.

Emergency funds and protections against electricity shut offs are set to expire for many Montanans at the end of the month. The number of people facing shut offs may be small now but demand for aid is growing with winter heating bills on the horizon.

Amy Ensign says she’s been fielding a lot of calls recently.

“Hi, so you were calling about some energy assistance," Ensign says.

Ensign works for the Human Resources Development Council in Billings. The nonprofit is one of multiple offices statewide working to help distribute state financial aid during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Ensign talks a client through the process of submitting an application for financial assistance to pay their utility bill.

She says clients write about the challenges they face in their applications.

“Either they were laid off or they’ve had to cut back on hours because their kiddos were out of school and so they had to be at home with them or that they’d filed for unemployment but hadn’t received it,” Ensign says.

Electric companies like NorthWestern Energy and Montana Dakota Utilities voluntarily and temporarily suspended disconnects for non payment. Now, Ensign says, those protections are ending.

“We’re getting a lot more referrals from utility companies for people who have high bills or they’re behind in their bills or they’re delinquent or they’re starting to receive shut off notices," Ensign says.

Montana’s largest utility, NorthWestern Energy, recently told state regulators it would lift its suspension of disconnects this month. The utility has about three hundred and seventy nine thousand electric customers in Montana.

NorthWestern Energy spokesperson Jo Dee Black says customers on the verge of a disconnect will still have more than 50 days before someone comes to stop their service.

“It’s always, always preferable for us to avoid that. For us. For the customer,” Black said.

She adds fewer than 10 percent of NorthWestern’s customers are behind on payments.

Montana Dakota Utilities’ (MDU) suspension of disconnects and late fees ends Sept. 1. Spokesperson Mark Hanson says, in preparation, MDU is setting payment plans with customers. He says it’s also pointing them to the offices that distribute state funding for emergency utility bill payments.

“And in a lot of those areas, there’s more funding than usual with the CARES Act," Hanson said.

About $5 million of it. But that’s ending too.

The state says roughly $1.4 million in CARES Act funding for utility bills remain. Any unused funds will be redirected to the winter heating assistance program at the end of the month on Aug. 31.

Aurora Kolpin of Action Inc. in Butte says the state’s expectation of need for emergency energy assistance hasn’t exactly lined up with what she’s seen.

“Quite honestly, they thought that we were going to have tons and tons of people applying for this COVID benefit program and actually our agency only received maybe 30 of them," Kolpin said.

She says a lot of people already got the $200 benefit as part of their enrollment in the state’s Low Income Energy Assistance Program.

Other offices report that demand for emergency energy assistance grants remains fairly low and steady over the weeks leading up to deadlines for state funding and suspensions of disconnects.

But Kolpin says she has seen an increase in loan applications since the beginning of August.

“I think people are realizing that winter’s going to be coming and that they need to get their bill under control before they get the winter is adding up," Kolpin said.

Kolpin speculates that paying off an account now could help clients extend the money they receive through the state this winter because there’s a smaller bill to chip away at.

She says her office grants loans up to $900 through a private nonprofit, Energy Assistance Care of Montana.

Rachel Haberman is the organization’s executive director. She says it saw a nearly 50 percent increase in household need between July 27 and last week on Aug. 10.

“And I think we major utility companies publicizing the fact that they are going to be moving towards disconnecting people, that has helped spur some of these applications," Haberman said.

She expects the need for heating assistance to increase this coming winter due to COVID-19, starting in September.

“We are bracing for the onslaught of applications," Haberman said.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.