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Gas, power bill assistance a 'drop in the bucket' as utility bills rise

Aug 15, 2023

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When the cold of winter is especially biting, some Wyoming residents are afraid to turn up the heat for fear of an inflated utility bill the next month that they can’t afford. The same contemplation happens during the dog days of summer — if a household even has air conditioning.

It’s a growing health and safety concern across the state, according to Mikel Scott, executive director of the Council of Community Services in Gillette. Especially in light of a series of major rate increase proposals for electricity and natural gas.

“We get calls in the middle of winter, like the first really cold days, and you can hear kids crying in the background because they’ve got no heat. It just makes you sick,” Scott said.

Scott and others worry that rising utility expenses, along with more frequent severe weather events, will pinch more and more residents who are trying to survive on low- and fixed incomes. Although resources such as the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program saw a major boost in federal funding during the pandemic, federal support may return to pre-pandemic levels, according to local officials.

Similarly, the pandemic-era Emergency Rental Assistance Program that distributed some $108 million in federal assistance to 17,142 Wyoming households also provided $6 million to help with utility bills. But that program ended June 30.

That leaves Wyoming LIEAP as the primary resource at a time when converging forces are spiking demand for assistance.

“With the available resources, we can service a small fraction of the need,” said Brenda Ilg, who oversees Wyoming LIEAP. “Maybe on a good year, we hit 20% of the households that are income eligible in the state. So, it’s just a drop in the bucket.”

The prospect of climbing utility rates is only compounded by a housing crisis that’s raising rents and pushing home ownership further out of reach, according to a 2022 report by the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Many who relied on the federal rental assistance program are now seeing their rents rise and turning to organizations like the Council of Community Services for help, according to Scott.

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“They’re getting notices that say your rent is going up anywhere from $100 to $400 a month, and now we’re going to quit helping with utilities,” Scott said. “Rent costs, in tandem with higher utilities, are playing a role in filling up our homeless shelter here — and then we have higher utility costs because we have more people in the shelter.”

Wyoming has the sixth lowest cost of residential electricity in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It ranks 17th lowest for residential natural gas and among the lowest for propane.

Yet utility costs are rising, no matter Wyoming’s ranking among other states.

For example, the average residential customer at Black Hills Wyoming Gas — a division of Black Hills Energy — paid $54.59 per month in 2020, $64.43 per month in 2021 and $81.80 per month in 2022, according to federal and state data compiled by the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate. The company has proposed a rate hike that, if approved, would push the average monthly household bill to $98.39 beginning in 2024 — an 80% increase over 2020.

The average residential monthly electric bill for Rocky Mountain Power customers in the state was $70.42 in 2011 and $81.14 in 2022, according to OCA’s figures. The utility, which serves about 150,000 customers in Wyoming, currently has two pending rate increases that, combined, would further raise monthly bills by 29.2%.

Customers of Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power Co., another division of Black Hills Energy, saw their monthly average residential electric bills go from $63.60 in 2008 to $105.95 so far this year — an increase of 67%.

Per-household consumption of natural gas among Wyoming residential and commercial users has remained fairly steady over the past two decades, according to OCA figures, although the number of customers has increased. Electrical use among the same sectors has increased, but only slightly.

Monthly utility bills in Wyoming are on the rise for myriad other factors. Utilities increase rates to cover the cost of new infrastructure — from natural gas pipelines to new electrical power generating facilities and electric transmission lines. Utilities also tap ratepayers for the cost to comply with state and federal regulations, as well as inflationary expenses to provide services.

Weather extremes play a role, too.

A nationwide cold snap in December and January temporarily inflated the price of natural gas tenfold. That meant higher utility bills for natural gas to power home heating units, as well as higher electric bills for customers whose utilities burn natural gas and coal to generate electricity. Most of the major utility rate cases currently before the Wyoming Public Service Commission cite either past extreme weather events or an anticipation of more frequent extreme weather events in the future for raising rates, according to commission filings.

The double jeopardy of fossil fuel-reliant utilities has played out like this: Severe cold in the winter and prolonged heat waves in the summer triggers more demand for heating and cooling, which temporarily drives up the market value of commodity fuels — especially natural gas. Those extra costs are passed on to ratepayers.

Ratepayers, however — at least at the residential level — can’t pass the buck.

Elizabeth de’Medici operates a business out of her rented apartment in Rock Springs and relies on Rocky Mountain Power for electricity. She worries about what the company’s 29.2% rate hike — if approved — might mean for her own finances as well as its potential health implications for those who might not be able to afford heating and air conditioning as needed during extreme weather.

“This puts people who can’t afford air conditioning at great risk,” de’Medici told members of the Wyoming Public Service Commission during a public hearing in July. “We’re looking, typically, at the very young and the very old who are on a fixed income and cannot possibly absorb it. I know I can’t. I know my business can’t.”

The federal low-income energy and weatherization assistance programs are the primary sources in Wyoming for helping with utility costs. The energy assistance portion is “seasonal,” limited to helping with the cost of a home’s primary heating source during the winter. The program helps weatherize homes year-round for those who qualify.

Federal support for the programs averaged about $10 million annually, from 2001 to 2020, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The state used to appropriate about $4.5 million annually to the programs, Ilg estimated, but that support ended in 2016.

Federal dollars nearly doubled under the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure law. That allowed program managers to extend benefits, particularly for weatherization and home-cooling expenses in the summer.

“That was really, really beneficial,” Ilg said. “And I think it highlighted just how much of a need there is out there.”

Although the number of LIEAP qualifying households — about 60,000 in recent years — didn’t rise dramatically during the pandemic, fewer applicants were turned away.

“If we go back to pre-pandemic funding levels, we may not be able to provide a lot of the benefits that we were able to provide during that pandemic period,” Ilg said. “I think people will feel that, especially in light of increasing fuel costs.”

When “all other sources of assistance have been exhausted,” a person may turn to Energy Share of Wyoming, a non-profit organization made up of several utilities that operate in the state, including Black Hills Energy, Rocky Mountain Power, Wyoming Rural Electric Association, Rocky Mountain PERC, Montana-Dakota Utilities Company and Dominion Energy.

“The overarching goal of Energy Share of Wyoming is to step in and help our clients with utility bill payment once all other sources of assistance have been exhausted,” Energy Share of Wyoming Board President Laurie Farkas said.

The program distributed some $98,000 to help with home heating costs this past winter compared to $67,000 for the 2021-2022 winter season, according to Farkas.

For now, it’s unclear where federal funding levels for low-income energy and weatherization assistance will end up, Ilg said. She’s not counting on the state to resume appropriations, and it’s uncertain whether the Department of Family Services will request state funding.

The programs are vital, Ilg said. She frequently hears from beneficiaries — particularly elderly residents — who cut back on medication doses and went without other necessities in order to account for increased energy costs in the winter.

The program “allows them to both eat and buy their medications, plus, keep their homes warm in the winter,” Ilg said. “There always is more need than there are funds available.”

Wyoming Low-Income Energy Assistance Program

Wyoming Weatherization Assistance Program

Wyoming Low-Income Home Water Assistance Program

Energy Share of Wyoming

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily... More by Dustin Bleizeffer

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