A CenterPoint Energy worker approached a house in Brooklyn Park in 2007. CenterPoint, a supplier of natural gas, reports about 186,000 past-due accounts totaling around $36 million. Last year, it reported nearly 200,000 in arrears for about $55 million in all.
The mild winter and low natural gas prices helped more low-income Minnesotans stay on top of their energy bills this season, even as the economy dwindled along.
Utilities report that fewer customers are in danger of having their heat cut off this year than a year ago as Minnesota's Cold Weather Rule, which helps protect consumers from having their heat shut off during the winter, expires Thursday. It began Oct. 15.
"We had a pretty warm November and obviously a very warm March, so that has helped out on both sides," said Pat Boland, who is in charge of compliance for Xcel Energy Inc., a provider of natural gas and electricity. "So for those customers that are struggling, it's kind of been good news, good news in relationship to how they were able to manage their bills."
Boland said just over 100,000 households in Minnesota are behind on their Xcel bills, about the same as last year. The amount owed is about $30.5 million, down from $37.4 million this time last year.
"Natural gas prices were significantly lower than they were this time last year," said Boland. "That helped out. Plus there was quite a bit of energy assistance dollars available to low-income households, and that certainly assisted at-risk customers as well."
Natural gas prices have ticked up a bit after plunging to seven-year lows last fall because of an abundance of supply, partly due to less demand from recession-pinched industries.
CenterPoint Energy, a supplier of natural gas, reports about 186,000 past-due accounts totaling around $36 million. Last year, it reported nearly 200,000 in arrears for a total of about $55 million.
CenterPoint spokeswoman Becca Virden said that the utility has disconnected 13 percent fewer customers this winter season than last. The Cold Weather Rule does not completely protect consumers from being disconnected, she said, but is yet another layer of protection during winter months.
Customers who ignore repeated notices and do not contact CenterPoint to come up with a payment plan can be disconnected, she said. "A lot of times people assume they cannot be disconnected during the Cold Weather Rule," she said. "That's not the case."
The utility now has 20,000 to 30,000 who can be disconnected, but Virden said those customers can still call and make arrangements for financial help or set up a payment plan with CenterPoint.
Xcel Energy said it has disconnected electricity for about 5,300 residential customers so far this year but clarified that it does not disconnect if that's the only source of heat. During the same time frame last year, it disconnected 4,500.
Many people who need help paying utility bills are sent to the federally funded, locally administered Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which received $156 million in 2010.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce said that as of Monday it received 170,251 applications this season compared with 154,992 at the same time last season. The average grant was about $600, compared with just over $500 last season.
The Commerce Department said it upped the average grant this year because it hadn't been keeping up with the increased costs of energy, according to John Harvanko, director of energy assistance programs for the department.
Several factors affect demand for assistance, he said, including the economy, fuel prices, weather and funding.
"The last couple of years we've had a good amount of funds for our programs and that often translates into us being able to help more people," he said.
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707