Pa. households without utility heat near highest level since 2001

The number of Pennsylvania households that entered this winter without utility heat or using unsafe heating sources hit its highest level in 14 years.
The number of Pennsylvania households that entered this winter without utility heat or using unsafe heating sources hit its highest level in 14 years.
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| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

The number of Pennsylvania households that entered this winter without utility heat or using unsafe heating sources remained near its highest level in 14 years.

Utilities, regulators and advocates blame the trend on underemployment, tougher guidelines to qualify for a state assistance program and a lack of awareness about the help available to consumers, despite gas prices being at record lows.

“It makes it tougher for middle-income families, the working poor, to survive, to make ends meet,” said Chad Quinn, executive director of the Dollar Energy Fund, a South Side-based nonprofit that provides utility assistance grants for households.

The Public Utility Commission's annual Cold Weather Survey, based on reports from gas and electric utilities, showed 24,175 occupied households without service or relying on unsafe sources in December, down by nearly 1,000 from the year before but up from 21,468 at the same point in 2005.

The numbers are a small percentage of the 4.9 million residential electric customers and 2.6 million residential natural gas customers in the state. Between Dec. 1 and April 1, utility companies are prohibited from shutting off residential customers' service for failure to pay without PUC authorization for households with income at or below 250 percent of federal poverty levels.

Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.'s West Penn Power and Penn Power have seen more delinquent accounts over the past few years, especially following milder winters, said spokesman Christopher Eck.

“Unfortunately there are folks who will find a way to get by without power if they can't afford to pay for it,” said Eck, who said that can lead to dangerous situations when cold snaps hit.

“We hope that they'll get in touch with us and we can work out a plan before they do anything dangerous,” he said.

The number of West Penn customers without utility heat because of terminations jumped to 469 in December from 184 in 2005. Penn Power's count increased to 178 from 15 during the same period.

Duquesne Light cut its number of households without a central heating source by 37 percent to 632 through better surveying, finding many homes previously on the list were unoccupied.

At Peoples Gas, the number increased 20 percent to 949 between 2005 and 2015. Its sister company, Equitable Gas, saw its number decrease from 2,888 to 621. Some of that drop can be attributed to a system switch during the summer, when disconnections were suspended, said Rita Urbaniak, manager of universal services for Peoples.

“It is always our goal to keep our customers in service,” she said. “We have programs to make bills more affordable and decrease usage.”

Working while poor

The state Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, sets the income limit for participation at 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, but it was raised temporarily to 200 percent in 2008-09 during the recession. Many household incomes still have not recovered, so the LIHEAP participation limits should be raised again, Quinn said. For a family of four, the maximum household income now is $36,375.

Many people who don't qualify are the working poor, said Quinn. The Dollar Energy Fund awards grants to households up to 200 percent of the poverty guidelines, he noted.

Overseen by the state Department of Human Services, LIHEAP received 11 percent more applications for aid last year than in 2005, but it approved only 1 percent more. LIHEAP funding nationwide has been cut from $5.1 billion to $3.4 billion since fiscal 2010.

The number of people starting winter without service is a concern to the PUC, but it's worth noting that utilities are reconnecting more service, agency spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said.

PUC-mandated spending on utility assistance programs increased over the past decade to $460 million, as has enrollment in the programs, he said.

Participation in Customer Assistance Programs, which subsidize monthly bills based on income and household size, increased 53 percent to 283,381 between 2004 and 2014.

“We continue to work to educate the consumer of the services and the programs that are available to them and also emphasize to the utilities that they have a substantial amount of flexibility in dealing with these customers,” Hagen-Frederiksen said.

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania is doing more advertising and messaging through email, bill inserts and social media to let customers know about programs, spokeswoman Jennifer DuBois said.

Columbia's number of customers without service because of terminations fell 31 percent — from 1,555 to 1,078 — between 2005 and 2015, but its number of customers using unsafe heating sources increased 64 percent to 323.

“Our first priority is the safety of our customers, and this rise is very troubling to us,” said DuBois, who said any customer using an unsafe heating source should contact the company for help in getting reconnected.

Tory N. Parrish is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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