FAIRMONT – When cold weather hits North Central West Virginia, the phones begin to ring at the Connecting Link, a local nonprofit.
For families that have to choose between buying food or paying their power bills, the charity makes life a little less hectic.
“We get a lot of calls mainly for gas and electric during the winter because the bills do go up,” said Emily Brown, emergency assistance coordinator for Connecting Link. “Year-round we help out with any utility shut off or service notice.”
Brown said calls increase every first cold snap and in winter because families use more electric or gas power to heat their homes. According to Jeffrey Straight, a spokesman for Mon Power, customers’ electric usage in general goes up in the winter, which can increase their bills.
“If you take the months of December, January and February and you compare them to the summer months... it’s roughly about a 20 percent increase in usage,” Straight said. “Electric heating uses more electricity than a forced air furnace or central air system.”
On the flip side from electric heating, residents who use gas heating could see a spike as well. According to Samantha Norris, a spokesperson for Dominion Energy, gas prices will actually decrease this year, meaning customers’ bills could be lower thanks to the decrease.
“Natural gas market prices have decreased due to an abundance of cleaner-burning natural gas that is present in the region and fair-weather conditions,” Norris said in a written statement. “[Dominion Energy] WV residential customers have received a change in rates to their monthly bills beginning Nov. 1, 2019, by an average of $1.48, which is a decrease of 2.47 percent.”
Brown said many people also need help with gas bills in the winter, so they come to the Connecting Link for aid. For some, the winter is the only time they need to leave their gas on, so the beginning of the cold season is when people need the most help.
“They turn it off in the spring when they don’t need it anymore,” said Lois Martin, emergency assistance coordinator with Connecting Link. “Then they come in and have a five or six-hundred dollar gas bill that they need help paying for the winter.”
Straight said Mon Power has an assistance program to help residents who can’t afford their monthly payment. Depending on the situation, these programs can often help people keep their heating on through the winter at a lower cost.
“Low income customers are affected during the winter months with the increase in their heating bills,” Straight said. “There is a lot of assistance for our customers like that during the winter months.”
The programs Mon Power offers range from energy assistance to payment arrangement assistance, and can aid those who are in constant debt to the company, or those who have had a recent financial hardship. Straight also gave some tips on how to lower electric power usage in winter.
“The focus for our customers should be on trying to conserve energy where they can,” Straight said. “Making sure that you’re cleaning your furnace filters, bundle up in the house if you can, don’t run your ventilation fans; all little things like that can help, but what is going to have the biggest impact on your bill is heating.”
Brown also said the Connecting Link alerts individuals to programs like these, but the nonprofit can also provide financial assistance in some cases. Brown added that calling 2-1-1 can provide people with information on utility assistance.
“They have to meet income guidelines, payment guidelines and each utility is a little bit different,” Brown said. “For most people, we tell them to bring in their bill, and we’ll sit down with them and look and see what they are eligible for, and its all on a case-by-case basis.”
Straight said Mon Power customers may be eligible for First Energy’s assistance programs and are just unaware of them. He said that with the increase in costs, people should know they may be able to get help through the winter.
“It is tough and it’s important that people are aware of how they can get assistance,” Straight said.
Straight said First Energy provides a list of aid programs to Mon Power customers, which is available by visiting www.firstenergy.com/billassist.