More Idaho households are having trouble paying their heating bills, according to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which says that some poor families spend up to half of their income on electricity and natural gas.
“With the way the economy is and the potential for future rate increases, we’re searching for ways to make energy more affordable for people,” said Gene Fadness, utilities commission spokesman.
Last fall, the commission led workshops with utility companies and nonprofit groups to generate ideas. One of the proposals came from a Washington program run by Avista Utilities that provides up to $400 per household to help needy families pay their winter utility bills. Avista paid out $4.4 million last year through the program, which is funded by a small surcharge on all Washington customers’ bills. The surcharge costs about $2 per month on residential electric and natural gas bills.
Avista wants to extend the program to Idaho, but state law currently prohibits it. The Idaho Supreme Court has twice deemed the surcharge illegal because of a statute barring utilities from granting “preference or advantage” in rates. The court ruled that the surcharge could be interpreted as a preference to low-income households.
An Avista lobbyist is working with Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, to introduce a bill to amend the statute.
When people can’t pay their bills, utility companies write off the lost revenue. Other utility customers end up paying for the write-offs through higher rates, McKenzie said. The surcharge to help needy families would actually cost customers less than the write-offs, he said.
Reaction to the surcharge proposal is mixed, McKenzie acknowledged. Other utilities opposed a surcharge. But “I do think it’s a good idea to pursue it,” McKenzie said.
The amendment would allow utilities to use a surcharge to fund assistance programs, but doesn’t make the surcharge mandatory.
In Washington, most of the families helped by the Avista program earn less than $15,000 a year, said Jessie Wuerst, an Avista spokeswoman.
“If these programs were not in place, customers would be paying significantly more than they are now,” she said. “Every utility has that challenge of people who aren’t able, or are less able, to pay their bills … This is one way that we all help each other.”
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission also endorsed other programs. Money for weatherization programs should apply to rentals, including apartments and trailers, as well as single-family homes, commission staff said.
Utilities should also lobby for stricter energy-efficiency standards in new buildings, and work with banks to help families purchase energy-saving appliances, the staff said.
Many utilities offer rebates to customers who trade in old appliances. “Unfortunately, upgrading an appliance is a luxury that low-income customers cannot generally afford,” the commission said.