The Minnesota Department of Commerce has doubled the amount of assistance families can qualify for to help cover the costs to heat their homes following frigid February weather.

The agency announced Friday that it will increase the maximum annual crisis benefit in its Energy Assistance Program from $600 to $1,200 for qualifying households. The program helps pay part of eligible households' heating bills. Additional money called crisis benefits can be used to cover past-due utility bills, help with utility disconnections and other heating needs.

"No one should have to choose between heating their home and buying food or other essentials because of February's frigid temperatures," Commerce Department Temporary Commissioner Grace Arnold, said in a statement. "That's why we're doubling the heating crisis support for families. In addition, if you are a household experiencing an energy emergency, the local service providers and the Commerce Department may be able to provide you even more financial assistance."

New applicants have until May 31 to apply, and funding is administered on a first-come, first-served basis. Households apply for assistance with their local service provider.

Both renters and homeowners can apply for energy assistance. The program serves households with income at or below 50% of the state median income, so for a household of four that earns less than $54,357 or $28,266 for a household of one. For households that have already received assistance, more benefits may be available. Families with young children, people with disabilities, veterans, seniors and those experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic are encouraged to apply.

Earlier last week, the state announced a probe into the impact of a spike in natural gas prices during the arctic blast.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495