After noticing his electricity bills rising earlier this year, Jason Bell opted to go on a budget plan so he could spread the cost over 12 months. He and his husband, Shane, figured it would help them get through the coming winter since their home in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, is heated by electricity.
It didn̵[ads1]7;t turn out that way. The couple now pays $472 a month on the budget plan, up from about $290 a month last winter. That prompted Bell to resume his part-time job as a police officer in addition to his full-time position as a state dog guard. The increase, combined with rising costs for food and other necessities, has Bell debating whether to take on another part-time job.
“The prices of everything have escalated to the point that a part-time job might not be enough to supplement the increase in bills that we’ve budgeted for,” said Bell, 41, whose husband works as a registered nurse while studying to become a nurse. degree.
Like Bell, many Americans are bracing for the cold reality that they will have to shell out even more to keep their homes warm this winter.
Families are expected to pay an average of 17.2% more for home heating this coming season, compared to last winter, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. It comes on top of a big price increase last winter, bringing the two-year increase to more than 35%.
Those who heat with natural gas face the biggest hike, with costs for the winter heating season expected to rise 34.3% to $952, the association said.
The fuel oil category is expected to jump 12.8% to $2,115. And those whose heat runs on electricity can expect to see an increase of almost 7% to $1,328.
Some people may not realize that heating their homes will be more expensive this winter, especially since gas prices had been falling for months.
“In many people’s minds, gasoline and home energy are the same thing,” said Mark Wolfe, the association’s executive director. “The surprise here is that the prices of fuel for heating are going to increase.”
Energy prices are on the rise, partly due to the repeated heat waves that baked large parts of the US this summer. That forced utilities to draw down on their natural gas reserves, which are also used to generate electricity, adding to the strain on inventory levels that were already below historical averages.
Oil prices, which rose last winter after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, are falling, but are still higher than last year.
Dan Pfoltzer paid his landlord $150 a month to cover oil costs in the small house he rents in Nassau, New York. But during the summer, knowing oil prices were rising, Pfoltzer increased it to $310 a month so he wouldn’t be hit with a big bill during the winter.
“When this tank runs out, the money will be there for the next tank,” said Pfoltzer, 71, who lives alone and drives a school bus.
Still, the increased costs mean he won’t be able to pay all his other bills, including those stemming from cancer treatment a few years ago. To keep oil consumption as low as possible, he plans to turn the thermostat down a few degrees to 67 and bundle up if he’s cold.
On the coast of Maine, Dale Christensen, Sr. plans and his family are already using electric blankets in the living room and bedroom this winter in an effort to minimize heating bills. The 53-year-old is also looking at buying heaters.
Christensen, a rural mail carrier, is already paying back his landlord for the $900 it cost to fill the oil tank when they moved into their rental house earlier this year. He expects to receive a $1,300 bill later this fall to refill it until the start of winter and probably two more after that during the season.
Heat wasn’t a problem for the Christensens last winter because they lived in an all-inclusive apartment, although the couple had to keep their elderly parents, who are on fixed incomes, warm in their homes.
“Every year we worry our parents about the heating costs,” he said. “This year is even more stressful and burdensome, because now of course we have to pay for our heat.”
The family has applied for help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, to cover part of the cost of their oil bill. But Christensen does not count on that until he hears whether they have been approved.
To make matters worse, there is far less money in LIHEAP’s coffers this year, even though roughly 20 million American households – or 1 in 6 families – are behind on their utility bills.
The American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress approved in March 2021, gave a $4.5 billion boost to the program for this fiscal year, on top of a regular appropriation of $3.8 billion. The stimulus money was mainly used to reduce the pandemic-driven spike in arrears.
Both the House and Senate are looking at appropriating $4 billion for LIHEAP for the 2023 fiscal year, although lawmakers have yet to approve the federal government’s funding bill for the coming year. The Biden administration has asked for an additional $500 million for LIHEAP on top of what lawmakers are considering, while the Energy Directors Association has asked for $5 billion more.
Requests for help have been pouring in, even before the cold weather sets in, state energy directors say.
At this time last year, Energy Services Inc. of Wisconsin was getting a record 300 calls a day to its call center. Now, the non-profit organization group, the main LIHEAP administrator in the state, receives more than 1,000 calls a day. A family of three making up to about $52,000 a year are eligible as long as funding is available.
– The need has not gone away. It’s accelerating at such a rapid pace,” said Timothy Bruer, Energy Services’ executive director, who noted that his group ran out of LIHEAP emergency aid money in fiscal year 2022 for the first time in three decades. “Keeping heat and power on, a basic necessity, has become an unaffordable luxury for tens of thousands of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable, at-risk households.”
In Massachusetts, the Worcester Community Action Council typically doesn’t start receiving LIHEAP applications until the temperature starts to drop, said Mary Knittle, the nonprofit’s director of energy resources group. But this year they’ve been coming in “fast and furious,” she said, noting that first-time applications for the coming winter are up 60% compared to this time last year.
Residents are preparing for higher taxes. An energy provider in the state just emailed its customers to inform them that electric bills will be an estimated $114 higher each month for average usage, compared to last winter — a 64% increase, she said. It cited higher electricity supply prices as the main reason.
Even those who do not heat with electricity will be affected as it usually requires electricity to run home heating systems.
At the same time, Knittle will have far less money to hand out this winter, although the grant has not yet been set. Last year, her agency received $24.6 million in LIHEAP funding, including a $13.9 million boost from the since-depleted U.S. bailout.
“Anxiety is very, very high,” Knittle said, noting that a family of three making about $68,500 qualifies for assistance in Massachusetts.
Martin Silva, Sr. is already hundreds of dollars behind on both the water and electric bills for the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, home he shares with his wife. He expects it will cost about $130 a month for natural gas to heat their drafty, old house, up from about $100 last year.
Silva, a dump truck driver, hopes to pay back his debt by cutting back even more on expenses, including trips to see his ailing, elderly parents in New York City twice a month. But the rising expenses have left him feeling “crushed”.
“You can’t move forward, no matter how hard you try,” Silva, 51, said.