Xcel cuts pain: Heating programs to get $5 million
Xcel Energy customers worried about how to pay higher heating bills this winter will find more help from the company, officials promised Thursday. The electricity and natural gas company with headquarters in Minneapolis will donate more than $5 m...
Xcel Energy customers worried about how to pay higher heating bills this winter will find more help from the company, officials promised Thursday.
The electricity and natural gas company with headquarters in Minneapolis will donate more than $5 million across its service territories to heating assistance programs.
The announcement follows the company's forecast that customers could pay at least 40 percent more this year to heat their homes, said Mark Nisbet, North Dakota principal manager for Xcel Energy.
"Those kinds of numbers have us very concerned," Nisbet said.
Xcel Energy serves 10 states and 1.8 million natural gas customers, including 42,000 in North Dakota and 413,000 in Minnesota.
The company can't control the market price of natural gas, but it does understand the hardship of higher bills for low-income families, Nisbet said.
Therefore, Xcel Energy is donating $1 million to the Salvation Army's HeatShare program in Minnesota and will match up to $500,000 in customer contributions to the program.
In North Dakota, the company has designated $80,000 for energy conservation programs and another $20,000 to Community Action agencies for energy education.
Xcel Energy will also double a previous contribution to Energy Share, granting an additional $20,000.
Energy Share is a Community Action emergency assistance program that helps qualifying households pay bills.
The program helped 300 individuals and families last year and numbers are increasing this year, said Gail Bollinger, assistant director of Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency.
Xcel Energy is also adding more personal account representatives to assist low-income or other at-risk customers with payment options and information about financial assistance.
The company is being proactive by calling some of these customers to discuss options, Xcel spokeswoman Bonnie Lund said.
Nisbet called the upcoming increase in heating costs "unchartered territory" and "a national concern."
Spikes in costs have occurred in the past, but this year's situation looks to be long ranging, he said.
Nisbet doesn't expect dramatic changes in the cost of electricity, but thinks some increase is likely.
Therefore, Xcel is focused on energy education efforts.
"Conservation is the single best way to reduce your energy bills," Nisbet said.
The company's Web site, xcelenergy.com, includes 60 ways to save money on energy bills.
"We're in this for the long term, and we will work to raise awareness of this critical energy-price situation," Nisbet said.
Gail Bollinger, a spokeswoman for a group that assists low-income residents, said her agency is bracing for more "crisis events" this winter.
"It just takes that one car repair ... you have a high heating bill and you just can't make ends meet," said Bollinger, the assistant director of the Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency. "We're ramped up for it. That's what we do and we do it well."
Bollinger's group serves about 300 families in six counties.
"The minute it starts getting cold out there, our phones will starting ringing off the hook," she said.
State Fire Marshal Ray Lambert is worried that people may turn to dangerous alternatives for heating their homes, or ignore maintenance on such secondary systems as fireplaces or wood-burning stoves.
"We're asking that people get these things cleaned and checked and running at peak efficiency," Lambert said. "I'm concerned that people may think, 'Well, I can save a few bucks and buy an extra tank of gas.'"
Lambert said there's little savings in turning down main furnaces in favor of portable devices.
"Tragic stories are the end results of improper inventiveness," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Readers can reach Forum reporter Teri Finneman at (701) 241-5560