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Montanans should expect higher heating costs

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HELENA – Montana residents should expect to shell out more money to heat their homes this winter due to an increase in energy costs, the Montana Public Service Commission said Wednesday, but there’s also additional aid this year for low-income residents.

“Montana’s regulated natural gas utilities—including NorthWestern Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. and Energy West Montana Inc. —are forecasting residential bills to be 47 percent to 62 percent higher compared with bills last winter,” said Erik Wilkerson, executive director of the PSC.

Utilities buy natural gas in the summer, when costs are typically lower, and store it for winter use. However, natural gas prices were higher this summer, said Jo Dee Black, spokesperson for NorthWestern Energy.

Natural gas prices in the United States have climbed to their highest level since 2014 because demand has grown faster than production was able to recover as the economy improved following shutdowns caused by the coronavirus.

Strong demand and limited supplies of natural gas in Europe led some natural gas produced in the United States to be shipped overseas where it would fetch higher prices, which also caused increased domestic prices.

In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts Montana could see a colder-than-average winter, especially across the northern half of the state, which would increase the amount of natural gas needed to heat a home.

Residents should consider taking advantage of utility billing that spreads winter heating costs across the entire year through monthly averaging, the PSC suggested.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services also has programs to help low-income residents with energy costs. The state is using $27 million in federal pandemic relief funding to supplement the $21 million already available through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance and Weatherization programs, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Tuesday.

About $14 million in the new funding will be used to increase heat assistance payments for the lowest income households with the highest energy burden, as well as for the elderly, those with disabilities, or households with young children, the governor’s office said.

A portion of the money will pay for a new, temporary benefit to pay past-due utility bills and make emergency payments for reconnection fees or to stop service disconnections. The increase in payments will only apply for this winter.

About $6 million will be used to improve the energy efficiency of homes.

On average, about 18,500 Montanan households are enrolled in the low-income energy assistance program and 460 homes are weatherized each year, officials said.

Black said those who apply for LIHEAP assistance also receive a discounted price on their energy rates. A family of four with a household income of up to $52,465 can be eligible for the energy assistance programs, according to state officials.

Montana Energy Share also provides emergency energy bill assistance for people who may not qualify for low-income energy assistance but face financial difficulties, and who are in danger of having their utilities shut off.

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