As the cost of everything from gas to groceries is on the rise, another increase is expected to be seen this year in the cost of heating the home nationally as well as in Wisconsin.

With what the Farmers Almanac expects to be a harsh winter on the way for the Upper Midwest region which spans the northern half of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, area residents could see quite a jump on their energy bills this winter season.

Matt Cullen, senior Communications Specialist for WEC Energy Group, said that typical residential Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) customers in the area are estimated to pay $20 to $30 more per month this winter to heat their home. This estimate assumes normal weather from November through April.

“A typical residential customer paid approximately $120 per month last winter to heat their home. Prices have continued to increase mainly due to tight supplies as well as a worldwide increase in demand for natural gas,” Cullen said.

“We understand higher prices can be challenging for our customers. We use a multi-pronged approach to limit the impact of sudden price changes while delivering reliable energy throughout the year. It’s also important to note the price we pay for natural gas is the same price our customers pay — there is no mark up,” he added.

Cullen said that any customer who is concerned about their bill should contact WPS right away in order to discuss bill payment options and connect them with financial assistance options they may qualify for.

“Our focus every day is delivering affordable, reliable and clean energy. We also recognize our responsibility to serve customers by working to keep bills as low as possible,” he said.

WPS also offers a series of simple steps customers can take to manage their energy costs and use energy efficiently this winter, including energy-saving tips and an at-home checklist.

These tips can be found online by visiting wisconsinpublicservice.com/savings/tips.

Projections released Oct. 18 from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) show that upcoming home heating costs could reach the highest level in more than a decade, with families paying 17.8% more for home heating this winter.

“Home heating costs are becoming increasingly unaffordable for millions of lower income families,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA. “This would be the second year in a row of major price increases.”

NEADA data shows that between the 2020-’21 and 2022-’23 winter heating seasons, the cost of home energy has increased by 36% — reflecting the highest prices in more than 10 years.

He noted that of additional concern, arrearages have not come down over the past year as people head into a winter of high home heating prices.

“As of August 2022, the national arrearage balance totals almost $16.1 billion according to NEADA’s estimates, nearly unchanged since August 2021,” Wolfe said. “One in six U.S. households are in arrears — 16.7%, equivalent to 20 million households.”

“The rise in home energy costs this winter will put millions of lower income families at risk of falling behind on their energy bills and having no choice but to make difficult decisions between paying for food, medicine and rent,” he said.



Programs available

But there are programs available to help families who may struggle to keep warm this winter.

One such program is the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program (WHEAP), which assists qualifying households with a one time grant per year to help with heat and electric costs, according to Lori Napstad, outreach coordinator for Energy Services, Inc.

“An application must be filled out to determine eligibility. Households can apply online at heat.help or call 715-337-2124 or 800-506-5596 for an appointment,” she said.

The state also has some funds available for crisis situations such as utility disconnections or low/out of fuel or propane situations. A furnace repair and replacement program is also in place for qualified households which meet the income guidelines.

Energy assistance benefits are available for individuals and households through WHEAP from Oct. 1 until May 15, 2023. This heating season, the average heating benefit it expected to be $372 and the average electric benefit is expected to be $210.

Eligibility is based on household income, household size, and the home’s energy costs. Residents may be eligible if their gross household income is 60% or less of the state median income level.

WHEAP pays benefits directly to energy providers to offset home energy costs. Crisis assistance, emergency furnace repair and replacement, and repair and replacement of leaking or otherwise malfunctioning water heaters may also be offered based on household need.

Residents can apply for energy assistance through county social and human service offices, tribal governments, and private nonprofit agencies, online at energybenefit.wi.gov, or by phone at 800-506-5596.

Napstad noted that another program, the Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance (WERA) can help households that may qualify for rental assistance toward past due or upcoming rent, utility, water, and Internet bills.

A WHEAP application must be completed first, but residents can call 1-833-900-WERA (9372) or visit wera.help for more information.

The Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) is available for homeowners to pay past due water bills to avoid water shut-offs. The assistance program can also prevent having a water bill arrears placed on an upcoming property tax bill.

“By qualifying and receiving help from the LIHWAP, you may also qualify for water conservation assistance such as repairing leaky pipes, hot water heaters, and other measures to reduce monthly water usage,” Napstad said.

After completing a WHEAP application, homeowners or renters can call 1-833-H2O-WISC (426-9472) or visit wisconsinwater.help.

Moratorium

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) is encouraging electric, natural gas, and water utility customers with outstanding bills to make payment arrangements with their provider or apply for financial assistance before the annual winter heating moratorium on disconnections begins.

Every year, from Nov. 1 to April 15, utilities are prohibited from disconnecting customers’ utility service for nonpayment when that service is used for home heating, according to PSC.

Although Wisconsin state law prohibits utilities from disconnecting essential services to residential customers during the moratorium period, customers currently disconnected must make arrangements to restore service.

Utilities are not required to reconnect service until payment arrangements have been made. To make a payment or arrange a payment plan, customers should first contact their utility provider, WPS Corporation, at 800-450-7260.

If customers cannot reach an agreement with their utility, they may contact the PSC by calling 608-266-2001 or 800-225-7729, or by submitting a PSC complaint online.

Statewide funding

Gov. Tony Evers recently announced that an additional $16.6 million investment, managed by the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA), includes $13.6 million that will go to WHEAP for heating assistance, along with $3 million for the Keep Wisconsin Warm/Cool Fund for crisis energy assistance.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin also recently joined a bipartisan coalition of 31 senators in urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to release funds for the Low Income Home Energy Program (LIHEAP) as swiftly and at the highest level possible.

The senators say the federal LIHEAP funding is a crucial lifeline that assists low-income households and seniors on fixed incomes to pay their energy bills and stay safe during the winter.

“Given the alarming increase in energy costs that is forecast for this winter, we worked to secure an additional $1 billion in emergency funding for LIHEAP in the recently enacted short-term continuing resolution (CR). It is critical that this funding, as well as the significant base funding available under the CR, is distributed as quickly as possible so it reaches these households in time for the winter heating season,” the senators wrote.

In 2021, 196,394 Wisconsin households received heating bill assistance through LIHEAP, and nationwide, an estimated 5 million households received assistance with heating and cooling costs.

Senior citizens and those receiving Social Security Disability or SSI benefits are encouraged to apply as early as possible, but applications will be open to everyone through spring of 2023, or until the funding is exhausted.