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Preparing for winter

Area utilities offer help to at-risk customers

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is encouraging Pennsylvanians to prepare for the upcoming winter heating season.

The PUC recently launched its annual “Prepare Now” winter heating campaign, underscoring the importance of consumers, businesses and utilities working together during this unprecedented time for Pennsylvania.

The campaign emphasizes that every utility can take actions right now to enhance efforts to reach at-risk consumers.

Last year, Pennsylvania utilities spent more than $391 million on PUC-required customer assistance programs, not counting the federal-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Collectively, these utility programs reach more than 290,000 electric customers and about 160,000 natural gas customers, reducing monthly energy bills; promoting weatherization and other improvements to cut energy consumption; and supporting hardship programs.

As part of this year’s Prepare Now campaign, the PUC is urging utilities to work even more closely with households and businesses and encouraging income-qualified consumers to apply for assistance programs such as LIHEAP.

LIHEAP helps families living on low incomes pay their heating bills in the form of a cash grant. Households in immediate danger of being without heat also can qualify for crisis grants. A cash grant is a one-time payment sent directly to the utility company or fuel provider to be credited to your bill. These grants range from $200 to $1,000, based on household size, income and fuel type. Because the money is a grant, it does not have to be repaid.

Peoples Natural Gas, which serves about 31,200 customers in Blair County, has launched a campaign this year to drive people to LIHEAP and the Dollar Energy Fund.

“We realized that with COVID, there would be many people who would be newly out of work and not be aware of the help available for them,” spokesman Barry Kukovich said.

“People who are income eligible should be able to take advantage of these federal and private funds to see them through the winter. During the past few years, when the heating season ended, there was leftover funding in LIHEAP,” Kukovich said.

Customers should call Peoples Natural Gas for help.

Kukovich said, “We can enlist any customer in our Customer Assistance Program. We can work out a payment arrangement that often stretches out over several years. During that time, good payment at a lowered amount will even result in arrange forgiveness. People have used our CAP to get through hard times and come out the other side. It’s an effective method for everyone, and certainly in this time, people should be working with us on such a plan.”

Meanwhile, UGI Utilities, which provides natural gas to parts of Blair, Bedford and Huntingdon counties, is offering the Emergency Relief Program to its natural gas customers in Pennsylvania. The program consists of two components to help qualifying customers with their outstanding energy bills during the COVID-19 pandemic:

— An installment plan for residential and business customers that allows a customer to spread an outstanding UGI balance over a period of time, and allows extra time to catch up on an outstanding balance.

— A one-time grant of up to $400 for amounts billed for service after March 2020 is available to customers who are eligible.

“UGI encourages eligible natural gas and electric customers to apply for the federal LIHEAP funds to help cover the cost of heating their home this winter. In addition, UGI offers a number of company-sponsored customer assistance programs designed to assist customers who are having difficulty paying their energy bill,” spokesman Joseph Swope said.

UGI’s Customer Assistance Program offers qualifying income eligible customers a more manageable monthly energy bill. UGI provides CAP participants with a monthly payment amount based on gross income, household size and energy usage. When CAP bills are paid on or before the due date, the difference between the amount billed and the actual amount used may be forgiven, Swope said.

The Low Income Usage Reduction Program offers free installation of energy conservation measures to low income households to help make energy bills more affordable and the Operation Share Energy Fund provides energy assistance grants to qualifying customers who experience difficulty paying their heating bills, Swope said.

Penelec, which serves about 600,000 customers throughout its 17,000-square-mile service territory, also is ready to help customers.

“We understand that electricity is a basic necessity that our customers rely on all day, every day. And the coronavirus emergency has made electric service all the more important as more people are working from home or attending school through online classes,” spokesman Todd Meyers said.

“Penelec’s customer service representatives are available to assist residential customers with manageable payment arrangements and can provide customers with information on needs-based assistance programs,” Meyers said. “These programs may include forgiveness of all or part of a customer’s overdue balance, helping them avoid a large bill.”

Residential and business customers of FirstEnergy Corp.’s Pennsylvania electric utilities who are having difficulty making ends meet are encouraged to contact their utility now to enroll in payment plans or bill assistance programs. FirstEnergy Corp. is Penelec’s parent company.

While shutoffs for nonpayment are temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, establishing an affordable payment arrangement or obtaining assistance can help keep balances manageable during this difficult time.

“We understand many customers are in a difficult financial situation because of the pandemic,” said Michelle Henry, vice president of customer service at FirstEnergy. “Customers who have lost income during this crisis may be eligible for assistance that was unavailable to them before, but some of those programs might not be available later, when overdue balances must be addressed.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

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