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Winter Heat Affordability

by Aude Jouanguy

Keeping warm through the winter months can be a real struggle--as temperatures drop, utility bills rise. Various assistance programs are offered but resources can dry up quickly. Too often, those who cannot afford heat are left to their own devices in trying to keep their home at a livable temperature.

Over the summer, the Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) conducted a "Basic Needs Survey" as part of their Sustainable Development Plan, and is now available online and open to public comments. Approximately 1,000 people voluntarily responded to the survey, 73 percent of whom have incomes below $15,000 a year. When asked if they could afford to heat their homes sufficiently during the winter, 53 percent responded "no."

While the community is going to have to address this need moving forward, those familiar with the struggles of low-income households are well aware of energy insufficiencies.

"[The fact that the statistic] is over half is shocking but does not surprise me," said Monica Peabody, executive director of the Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights (POWER). POWER is an Olympia based organization that offers legal information to people on how to access public benefits.

Peabody said low-income families may qualify for programs such as the Salvation Army Warm Home Fund, a program offering assistance by providing short term emergency bill payment to Puget Sound Energy (PSE) customers facing financial difficulties.

Suzanne Sasville, a low-income program manager at PSE, provided information on the program. Last year, the Warm Home Fund collected around $600,000 from PSE employees, customers, and shareholders, which were then distributed among 11 counties in the State of Washington. A total of $31,000, the highest recorded yearly donation, was distributed in Olympia to assist 171 customers in need, according so Sasville

Other energy assistance programs offered by PSE include the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the HELP Program, also known as the Lifeline Program. Qualified families at risk of losing their heat during the winter may be eligible for assistance through the PSE Moratorium program, starting from November 15, 2013 and ending March 15, 2014.

"I'm curious because they are collecting money but I know a mom who has an autistic child and he was severely traumatized by darkness," said Peabody. "She couldn't keep her lights on and when she called PSE and said 'this is a really bad situation and I really need some help,' they didn't help her. So who are they helping with the funds?"

In an email, Peabody invited POWER members to share their experiences with the South Sound Green Pages. Linda Sanders responded with a description of how she kept her family warm in the winter.

"I cover all of the doors and windows with plastic or blankets," Sanders wrote. "I leave the heat on very low (50-55 degrees) in the house. We all go into one room and shut the door and this helps because body heat keeps the room warmer...I cook as much as possible in the oven. We wear sweaters or sweat jackets and there is a blanket, throw, or afghan on just about any seat in the house. When my kids were at home I would put them in bed and tuck them in with flannel and start the dryer or dishwasher for extra heat. I would get up before them and boil the water for hot tea or chocolate...I refuse to turn the heat up."

Sierra Brown, a volunteer at POWER and the current shelter manager at Out of the Woods, a family transitional housing shelter in Olympia, said she thought the Planning Council's survey statistics are "very realistic."

"The culture that I am submerged in outside of these settings does not reflect this at all," said Brown. "I think there are a lot of people who just don't see it because it is not affecting them or the people in their circle. What you don't see is really easy to believe doesn't exist."

Statistics obtained through the Planning Council's survey reflect the stories shared by Peabody and Sanders, and show that many low-income residents in the county face these situations. Despite PSE's assistance programs, people are still struggling to pay their bills. Furthermore, the utility has a history of mismanaging low-income accounts.

In a press release issued in November 2012 by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), PSE was fined $250,000 for violating a 2010 order by which the company was required to correct and review specific customer accounts. PSE was fined $104,300 in October 2010 for improperly handling the accounts, which affected many low-income customers, disconnected for nonpayment. The UTC required PSE to compensate the mishandled accounts and the utility agreed to dedicate $75,000 to its assistance program.

In the broader scope, some believe lower energy rates can be achieved through the creation of a public utility district (PUD), not just for low-income families but for everyone.

"Areas served by public power in this state all have rates substantially lower than those of PSE," said Doug Riddels of Friends of Public Power, formerly known as the Thurston Public Power Initiative. Riddels said the group changed its name to refocus the campaign's energy on public education. Last year, Prop. 1, an initiative that would have authorized the creation of a PUD, failed by a wide margin after PSE and its allies vastly outspent their opponents.

Riddels said the best case comparison is Jefferson County, which recently transitioned from PSE to a PUD. Within a few months residents saw their rates drop significantly.

"It is estimated that at least $17 million is taken out of Thurston County's economy each year, in profits to foreign investors," said Riddels. He said if the money paid to PSE were reinvested in local economies, it would not only create new opportunities for local entrepreneurship, social services, and sustainable development, it could also be used for reinvestment in local utility infrastructure.

"The biggest concern for our members is to be able to have a home and real basic stuff," said Peabody. "People who are forced to rely on a welfare grant for income are really either homeless or live in a substandard housing, or are very lucky to find something affordable at $385 a month."

Aude Jouanguy is an intern at the South Sound Green Pages and a graduate of The Evergreen State College. As a French exchange student, she majored in international studies, political science, and economics.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22