Higher Heating Costs Hit Home

Residents struggle to pay rising energy prices this winter

By Paul Menser
Post Register
Printed on Sunday, January 22, 2006

In the past three years, Jim Thompson has watched his Intermountain Gas level pay bill rise from $77 a month to $218.

A retired truck driver, 77-year-old Thompson has never sought financial assistance for his heating bills. But on a fixed income, the higher cost is an added burden.

"It hurts when you're on $1,000 a month," he said. "I'm not having trouble keeping warm, but I am having trouble keeping my temper."

Just as anyone who has been to the gas pump lately has been made aware of the rising price of energy, anyone using electricity, natural gas or propane to heat their homes is paying more this winter.

Intermountain Gas received permission in 2005 to raise its residential rates 27 percent. The utility told the Idaho Public Utilities Commission that's what it would take to recover what it paid for gas from wholesale suppliers.

"It's important to note those increases reflect the price of the commodity," said Mike Huntington, spokesman for the utility.

In Idaho Falls, residential electric rates have jumped nearly 54 percent since August 2001. This reflects the rising cost of the power the city buys from the Bonneville Power Administration, said Van Ashton, Idaho Falls Power's customer service manager. Since the late 1990s, drought and growth in the Pacific Northwest have forced BPA to buy excess power on the open market, where costs have been fickle. Another BPA rate increase could be coming in October, Ashton said. Because Idaho Falls Power buys the bulk of its electricity from BPA, that rate hike could be passed along to Idaho Falls residents.

On a macroeconomic scale, this is easy enough to understand.

But macroeconomics matter little to Jean Shinn, 74, of Idaho Falls, who can feel drafts everywhere she goes in her old condominium with electric heat.

Shinn lives by herself on Social Security and needs medicine, which means her funds are limited.

Her solution for staying warm?

"Wrap up in a blanket, try to keep my feet propped up," she said. Shinn eats lunch at the Senior Citizens Community Center on 21st Street, a haven for a lot of seniors in the winter.

The image of an old person shivering under blankets with the thermostat turned down to 55 is not off the mark, says April Winters, emergency services coordinator for Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership.

Winters said she has seen two elderly clients this winter whose propane heating bills have topped $1,000. Energy assistance can only help with half.

"It was never meant to pay the whole amount," she said. "It can be really hard if you're on a fixed income or working at a low-wage job. The wages in the state, they're terrible."

This winter, between Nov. 1 and Dec. 30, EICAP paid $515,768 in energy assistance to 1,520 households in nine eastern Idaho counties.

The money comes mainly from the federal government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also from voluntary assistance programs run by Intermountain Gas, Idaho Falls Power and Utah Power and Light.

All told, 513 of the homes that received a benefit were inhabited by elderly people; 895 were inhabited by handicapped people; and 946 of them had children in them.

"Those are the people we really want to serve," Winters said. "They seem to be the ones that really struggle."

While a lot of attention has been focused on the rate hikes that Intermountain Gas has imposed "70 percent since 2003" Winters said a significant number of energy assistance clients are on Idaho Falls Power.

Since August 2001, the city utility's residential rates have gone from 3.9 cents per kilowatt hour to 6 cents.

Utah Power and Light, which serves Ammon and Bonneville County, charges as much as 9.2 cents per kilowatt hour during peak hours, which are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the winter. During off-peak hours, however, the winter rate goes down to less than 4 cents per kilowatt hour.

The utilities all have programs through which customers can pay extra to help people in need. But a check for more that $1,000 from Idaho Falls is a good month, Winters said. While she is impressed that people are giving that much, $1,000 is enough to help four people, as the average one-time benefit is around $250.

With costs as high as they are, the problem is compounded by the fact that many people on fixed incomes or low incomes live in antiquated, inefficient homes.

A person might have a furnace that doesn't work well, so he or she resorts to space heaters, which consume electricity voraciously. Likewise, baseboard heat can result in a monthly bill of more than $200, Winters said.

In addition to assistance with heating bills, the federal LIHEAP program has provided money for weatherization.

But LIHEAP funding depends on annual federal appropriations, and funding has not kept pace with the growing number of families requesting assistance.

For this fiscal year, Congress and the Bush administration have proposed to cut funding by as much as 8 percent from 2005. Even if the appropriation were to grow, Winters said, most of the money is likely to go to the Gulf Coast, still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"Idaho would probably not get any," she said.

This may leave many people eager for summer.

Stella Peterson, the 81-year-old widow of a career Air Force officer, said she??s financially sound enough to handle the rising cost of heating her home.

But she worries about her granddaughter and grandson-in-law, Mindy and Corey, who are expecting a child. Mindy recently lost her job while Corey works at a furniture warehouse, she said.

"Some of these young people, it??s hard for them, too," she said. "I was thinking of her when I was paying my gas bill yesterday."