Tough winter looms for some in state | AspenTimes.com

Tough winter looms for some in state

Catherine Tsai
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” With heating bills expected to jump as federal aid is dropping, the head of an energy-aid group predicts this winter could be the roughest ever for thousands of Coloradans.

“We’re really looking at a time now where, for low-income households, this could be the worst winter they have seen from the aspect of how much they have to pay out of their own pockets,” said Skip Arnold, executive director of Energy Outreach Colorado.

The organization expects to distribute $7.8 million this year to help Coloradans pay heating bills, up from $5.6 million last year, Arnold said. The group is dipping into its “snowy day fund” for a third straight year to help meet growing need.

The organization also expects to distribute nearly $2 million to improve energy efficiency in low-income homes.

On Friday, Denver resident Victoria Turilli, 31, and her three children, ages 3 to 8, attended an energy assistance expo to apply for help. Last year the family applied too late, and around Christmas, she sold her car to pay the utility bills and keep the heat and power on.

“My husband has a good job, but costs are going up and wages aren’t necessarily going up with it,” she said. “We always do it by the skin of our teeth.”

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Last winter, Energy Outreach Colorado and the Colorado Low Income Energy Assistance Program helped about 105,000 housholds with an average benefit of about $370.

Lakewood resident Amalia Romero, 78, applied for aid for the first time Friday. “I can’t afford it anymore,” she said. “My children help me, but they have their own expenses.”

Xcel Energy is projecting its Colorado residential customers’ heating bills will drop 11 percent this winter compared to last winter amid lower natural gas prices. However, those projected declines were based on comparisons to December 2006, when natural gas prices rose, Arnold said.

Both Arnold and Xcel Energy expect gas prices could rise in early 2008 with the completion of the Rockies Express Pipeline, which will deliver natural gas produced in the Rocky Mountains to the Midwest. With local supply down, natural gas prices would go up.

Arnold says Energy Outreach Colorado expects combined natural gas and electric bills to go up 5 to 8 percent for most residential customers from November through April compared with the same period last year.

For low-income households who are expected to get less federal aid this winter, the energy expenses they have to pay are projected to rise 20 to 25 percent, Arnold said.

Last year Dorothea Yancy, 70, received help because the recession that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks wiped out her investments. Then her landlord installed a new furnace and new windows to improve energy efficiency, dropping energy bills at her house in Lakewood from $190 from October 2006 to $48 this last October.

She called the energy-efficiency improvements an enormous help. “It can change your life. It gives you other things you can do, when you’re not straining to pay your utility bills,” she said.

The average Colorado households spends about 6 percent of its income on energy. Low-income households spend about 16 to 20 percent on average, Arnold said. Some, including senior citizens or the disabled, pay more than half their total income for home energy, leaving less for food, medicine and other expenses.

“Most of us don’t think of medicine and health care and food, transportation and clothing as optional,” Arnold said. “The price of home energy makes necessities optional for many families.”

A report for the Colorado Interagency Council on Homelessness showed that in a survey of the homeless Jan. 29, almost 11 percent listed an inability to pay utilities as a reason for their homelessness.