Heating bills bring chills of worry in rural Minnesota

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2014 - 5:14 AM

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Ron Selleck huddles under an electric blanket every night, worrying how long the propane in the tank outside his home will last.

A retired widower living on a fixed income in North Branch, Minn., he panicked a little when the $650 he spent on 300 gallons didn’t last even a month this extra cold winter. That was after he closed off bedrooms, set the thermostat at 58 and built fires in a wood stove. Selleck, 78, is running out of options to pay for the increased gallons and higher price of propane required to keep his old house minimally warm.

As winter keeps an enduring, ferocious grip on Minnesota and much of the nation, the price of propane is jumping and all types of furnaces are running extra hard, putting residents like Selleck on the brink of freezing pipes and financial disaster.

Administrators of government heat-assistance programs and nonprofits are seeing a spike in requests for help.

Propane suppliers already are rationing supplies and natural gas users began feeling the pinch Sunday, when Xcel Energy and other utilities asked customers to conserve fuel in the wake of a Canadian pipeline explosion that has limited the flow of natural gas.

CenterPoint Energy is telling customers that January bills for natural gas could be double what they were in December, depending on the customer, spokeswoman Becca Virden said.

Selleck got some help from the Salvation Army after he used up his allotment of government heating assistance that is administered through the Lakes and Pines Community Action Council in Mora, Minn.

There, staff member Vickie Palmquist said the crisis department is overwhelmed this season with heartbreaking stories.

“Clients are calling in and saying ‘We’re keeping it at 50 degrees to make it last longer,’ ” Palmquist said. “When you hear of these little old ladies and little old men that are keeping their house at 50 degrees … I want to take them home and stick them in my … house. I just feel so bad and I can’t do anything and all of us feel like that here and our hands our tied.”

Rural troubles

While most urban dwellers fire their furnaces with piped-in natural gas and can get protection from shut-off until April 15 under the state’s “cold weather rule,” residents of rural areas who get propane or fuel oil delivered by truck aren’t so lucky.

The Salvation Army is getting overwhelmed with calls from rural areas, especially from those who use propane, which has seen a shortage and dramatic wholesale price increase in the Midwest, going from $1.55 per gallon last fall to just under $5 last week. The Minnesota Propane Association estimates that more than 250,000 homes, farms and businesses use propane as their main source of heat.

“The price is astronomical. … The money they get from public resources isn’t buying them near as much and they’re going through twice as much with this kind of weather,” said Mike McGlone, director of the HeatShare program at the Salvation Army in Minnesota. “It’s a problem we have and we’re not sure what to do about it.”

No matter what kind of fuel people are using, they’re using more of it to keep their homes heated to a minimum warmth. The average temperature in the Twin Cities this winter is just over 11 degrees — 7 degrees colder than the 30-year average and almost 10 degrees colder than last winter, according to the National Weather Service.

Early this season, the number of Minnesotans seeking government heating assistance was on track with last year, officials said, but more subzero temperatures are changing that.

During the first week of January, applications for energy assistance went up nearly 10 percent compared to the same week last year, according to officials in the state Department of Commerce, which administers the federal heating assistance money. With continued cold weather, officials expect applications will continue to climb above normal.

Congress moved last week to provide some extra heating relief across the cold nation, adding $3.4 billion to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. State commerce officials are waiting to see how much extra money Minnesota will get when the funds are divided among states.

Households with an income of less than 50 percent of the state median — $43,642 for a family of four — may qualify for energy assistance that will be paid to the utility company directly.

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  • During this unseasonably cold winter Vicki Parchman, 55, has often wrapped herself in a blanket to stay warm and there are multiple blankets folded on the couch waiting for other family members and visitors. Parchman, who keeps her heating thermostat at 65 degrees or below, receives $200 a year in heat fuel assistance but her heating bill for December and January was $300. Parchman said she could afford to send off only $120 on that bill. "It's just scary," Parchman said about the heating bills. "I don't even want to look at it." Parchman said the cold winter thus far...

  • Ron Selleck of North Branch, Minn., is one of many rural Minnesotans struggling to pay heating costs as the price of propane soars. The $650 he spent on 300 gallons in December didn’t last even a month.

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