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Utility expenses, shut-offs on rise

More cost increases loom as winter nears

As the economy has weakened during the past year, more people have found themselves without power because they can’t pay the bills.

Across the Inland Northwest, power companies report more shut-offs compared to last year. For Avista, disconnects are up 10 percent among electric and natural gas customers in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and parts of Oregon. The increase is 5 percent at Inland Power and Light and Kootenai Electric – two cooperatives that serve more than 50,000 customers between them.

And that’s before winter sets in.

“People who have never had to access energy assistance before may have to access it now,” said Robin Waller, spokeswoman for the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, which operates a government-funded heating assistance program. “People who may have been able to make a budget for years and years and years may not be able to, and it’s not just rate increases. Everything’s higher.”

Rising heating costs are expected to be a problem for more families this winter. The cost of heating oil – up dramatically in recent years – is expected to soar 30 percent.

Meanwhile, Avista has just been granted permission by Idaho regulators to raise electric rates 13 percent and natural gas rates 5.3 percent. Coupled with an additional $6.40 a month in surcharges, the change will cost the average customer $18.40 more a month, the utility estimates.

As part of that change, Avista will increase the amount of money it spends on weatherization projects for low-income residents.

Avista also wants to raise rates in Washington – a proposal that has drawn criticism from the attorney general’s office, which says the utility should scale back its request and trim executive salaries. Avista has requested an increase of 9.2 percent for Washington electric customers and 3.3 percent for natural gas.

Utility representatives emphasized that they try to work with people who fall behind on their bills – creating payment plans, directing them toward resources such as the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, and forestalling a shutoff.

If you’re in trouble, “give us a call,” said Debbie Simock, Avista spokeswoman. “It’s easier to take care of the situation early before it gets so far down the road.”

They also note that the total number of shut-offs includes people whose power is restored, sometimes immediately after a disconnection. “A significant number of customers in a disconnect situation will immediately pay to have their service restored,” Simock said.

Companies are slower to shut off power in the coldest parts of the winter. Idaho has a moratorium on winter shut-offs by publicly traded utilities for households with children, elderly or infirm family members. Washington has no such rule, but Avista holds off on disconnects when it’s very cold or storming.

“A winter disconnect does tend to be a bit of a judgment call,” said Jessie Wuerst, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Kootenai Electric is a co-op governed by its members and not a regulated utility, but it doesn’t disconnect accounts in winter, either. Inland Power doesn’t have a prohibition on winter shut-offs, but tries hard to avoid them, said spokeswoman Catherine Markson.

Nationwide, energy prices are expected to rise 17 percent this winter, increasing the burden for people already struggling financially. According to a survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, 8 percent of low-income and moderate-income households – those making 250 percent of the federal poverty line or less – had their electricity shut off during the past year.

In some parts of the country, the problem is even more pronounced, according to an Associated Press survey of regulators and energy companies. Shut-offs have been running 17 percent higher than last year among customers of New York state’s major utilities and 22 percent higher in Michigan. Congress recently more than doubled its funding for energy assistance programs nationwide; it’s unclear how that will show up in Spokane and North Idaho, but officials at SNAP were happy they’d be able to provide more help.

In recent years, as energy costs rose and government assistance didn’t, SNAP faced a frustrating combination of events – more people seeking help and fewer receiving it.

Among SNAP’s energy assistance programs is Project Share, which provides one-time grants to prevent power shutoffs. In the 2007-08 heating year, the number of people who got that kind of help jumped 18 percent.

SNAP provides help in a variety of formats, including direct grants, emergency help to avoid shutoffs, and assistance with furnace repair and replacement and other weatherization.

Heating assistance isn’t expected to become available until after Nov. 1.

“People are already calling,” she said.

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