Cold weather rules to protect low-income energy consumers are kicking in across the country as the heating season gets into full swing.
Minnesota’s Cold Weather Rule took effect on Saturday and runs through until April 15, istockanalyst.com reports. Before a utility such as gas, oil, propane or electric can disconnect service, the company must try to work out payment plans with customers and provide information on how to avoid disconnection.
Other states have similar rules, like a law in Connecticut which provides a safety net for anyone who heats with gas or electricity. Utilities are prevented from shutting these customers off for inability to pay.
Minnesota’s Otta Tail Power Company spokesman Cris Kling said electricity and gas customers were given a list of energy assistance and weatherization providers as well as tips on how to conserve energy to help them get through winter.
“It’s always better if customers proactively contact their utilities to set up payment agreements than to just ignore growing account balances in the hopes that energy assistance will help,” he said.
Federal winter heating assistance programs face massive cuts this year. Congress is considering a proposed cut to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) which would slash it in half to around $2.5 billion. Record numbers of homeowners sought energy relief through the program last year as winter energy costs spiked.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has floated a unique response to the proposed cuts which has caused controversy in the Northeast state. His administration has proposed giving available assistance to customers who heat with deliverable fuels such as heating oil, because those on gas networks on the electricity grid cannot be disconnected for non-payment.
Connecticut is forecast to receive only about $46 million this year in LIHEAP, Office of Policy and Management spokesman Gian-Carl Casa said. The state dished out $115m to 117,876 customers under the scheme last year.
But Malloy’s proposals have drawn criticism from utility companies and community advocates, who say it discriminates against people on the basis of the winter energy source. Normally, federal LIHEAP payments are made according to income eligibility regardless of the fuel source, be it oil, propane, electricity or natural gas.
“We understand the concern,” Casa said, “but the priority has to be keeping people from freezing, and our plan does that. Unfortunately, the federal government appears to be walking away from its commitment here and we don’t have the resources to spend more on it ourselves. If we were to do what the advocates ask for, the program would run out of money later this year.”