Monday, February 6, 2023
Feb. 6, 2023

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Energy bills rise as some Washington households struggle to keep warm


Even as freezing temperatures and wintry weather blast the Seattle area, increasing energy costs and rapid inflation are leading some residents to limit heating their homes.

Last year, about 1.3 million Washington residents cut spending on basic necessities like food and medicine in order to pay an energy bill, according to December 2021 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. At least 1 million reported keeping their home at a temperature that felt unsafe or unhealthy for at least one month, with more than 280,000 doing so almost every month.

Many will face a similar prospect this winter season. State officials, utility companies and local agencies are bracing for a surge in households struggling to pay higher winter heating bills, and expect demand for energy assistance programs to increase over the next few months.

“We’re seeing a lot of people strain their budgets and sacrifice and go without,” said Andrea Caupain Sanderson, CEO of Byrd Barr Place, a Central District organization that distributes energy assistance funding to lower-income residents in Seattle.

“Students all the way up to seniors are having to go without food or decide, ‘I’m going to be colder today’ … just to make ends meet,” she said.

The nationwide average cost of home heating will increase by 17.2% since last winter’s heating season, from $1,025 to $1,202, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, a major price increase for a second year in a row.

Those higher heating costs are driven by a number of factors — rising natural gas prices caused by the global energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, state goals for clean energy and the highest levels of inflation in 40 years, among others.

Puget Sound Energy announced in October it would seek to increase its energy rate, resulting in the typical residential natural gas customer seeing a monthly bill increase from $75 to $88 over the next two years. Seattle City Light will also increase its rates next year, costing the average residential customers around $4 more per month starting January.

Combined with the end of pandemic-related relief programs like the child tax credit and emergency rental assistance, inflation is bearing down particularly hard on lower-income people, who spend a larger percentage of their income and savings on basic necessities like food and gas.

“Our families feel so lonely and isolated [during] the winter months when they’re going without the resources they need,” Sanderson said.

Longtime federal relief programs, such as the Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, will likely see an increase in need, according to the state’s LIHEAP program manager, Brian Sarensen.

Padded with COVID-19 relief money, Washington state received $86 million in federal funding during its last LIHEAP program cycle, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 the following year. For the current program year, the state received $74 million, according to the state Department of Commerce.

Nearly 9,400 South King County households received about $12 million in relief for energy and utility bills during the last fiscal year from the Multi-Service Center, which distributes LIHEAP funds as well as money from Puget Sound Energy’s Home Energy Lifeline Program, or PSE HELP.

October through January are always a busy period for the agency’s energy assistance program, according to the organization’s energy program director Oksana Savolyuk, but “compared to last year at this time, there does appear to be higher demand.”

Demand is not quite at pandemic-era levels, Sanderson said. In 2020, Byrd Barr Place distributed money to 8,400 households for energy needs, up roughly 1,700 from the previous year.

A majority of those additional recipients were first-time applicants who were suddenly experiencing job loss or financial difficulty during the first year of the pandemic, Sanderson said.

Last year, the organization helped about 5,000 households pay utility bills, refill oil tanks, repair and replace furnaces and buy air conditioning units and air purifiers. The organization is preparing to serve between 5,500 and 6,000 households this year.

To apply for energy assistance, visit Puget Sound Energy’s website to see if you qualify for its grant program, or find the service provider covering your area on the state’s LIHEAP website.