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Montanans balance utility bills, other costs as winter wraps up

An electric meter on the side of a residential structure.
epantha/Getty Images/iStockphoto
An electric meter on the side of a residential structure.

It’s been an unusually warm winter in Montana and on a February day in Billings it’s 40 degrees. At a gas station, Leona Wolfblack sits in a parked car. While it’s warm today, Wolfblack recalls the deep freeze in January when temperatures reached -20 and below.

One month later, Wolfblack now has a steep electric bill: “Especially when it was the negative degree weather, yeah it was pretty bad.”

Social services in Billings and Bozeman say they’re only seeing an increase in requests for help on utility bills despite a drop in inflation and a temperate winter overall. The Human Resource Development Council in the Gallatin Valley says they’ve seen a 47 percent bump in emergency assistance loan applications and a 21 percent increase in utility bill applications this season, July through February, over last season.

HRDC Associate Director Sara Savage says people living with low or fixed incomes are more exposed to emergencies when it comes to flexing budgets.

“We know that this winter we’ve had mild temperatures for most of the year, and so many of our community members aren’t feeling those rate hikes. They’re less visible than they would be in a normal winter season for us,” Savage says. “However, even with that being the case, we’ve seen an increase in our requests for folks looking for assistance.”

HRDC staffers say people are still struggling with the after-effects of the pandemic, but now without the added COVID-era support funds.

U.S. Energy Information Administration data from 2022 show Montana’s electric fees ran higher than those in Wyoming, North Dakota or Idaho, but all landed below the national average.

Patrick Barkey with the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research says electricity costs nationwide have risen compared to pre-pandemic.

Two of the state’s largest utilities, Montana Dakota Utilities and NorthWestern Energy, increased their fees through formal regulatory rate cases within the last year.

According to NorthWestern Energy filings, the utility also spent millions of dollars buying power on the open market during a deep freeze in January. Barkey says the cost of energy on the market increases when multiple utilities buy power to meet demand.

“It involves electric utilities not just here in Montana but elsewhere going to the market a little more often and tending to go to the market at the same time and bidding the price up,” he says.

Back in Billings, nonprofit Family Service offers emergency funding to people who can demonstrate their need through a shut off notice. Family Service Director of Development Felicia Burg says she’s hearing sticker shock as families get a look at their bills.

“Some people who have rental assistance, so they’re on subsidized rentals, if their electricity or their gas gets turned off, they get an eviction notice for that too, so they have to keep their utilities on and running,” she says. “So, they’re freaking out, because not only would their electric or their gas be shut off, but also that would cause a domino effect that they would lose their house.”

Like HRDC, Burg expects the need to continue.

“It’s gonna be another month or so before those disconnect notices will be coming out, and we’re just bracing for it.”

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