High gas prices hurting local seniors

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 13, 2001

An unusually cold December and high natural gas prices are having a disastrous effect on Freeborn County’s senior citizens.

Saturday, January 13, 2001

An unusually cold December and high natural gas prices are having a disastrous effect on Freeborn County’s senior citizens. If bills stay high, many may be forced to move from their homes, or be tempted to skimp on life-necessities like groceries or medication.

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&uot;I get these calls and they’re crying and they don’t know what to do,&uot; said Harold Carroll, manager of the Senior Resources Advocacy Program. &uot;I go see them and they’re wringing their hands.&uot;

So many people have applied for the SEMCAC energy assistance program that the organization is two months behind on processing applications, Carroll said. Many who cannot afford their utility bills make too much to qualify for assistance. Even those who received allotments have found the money that would have paid for heat from Dec. to February on any other year is covering only a month’s worth of natural gas.

January natural gas bills were an average of 87 percent higher than a year ago, according to Alliant Energy.

Some seniors have gone back to work to meet the expense, some have moved from private homes to apartments, but those actions aren’t answers for everyone Carroll said. What about the 70-year-old man who makes $700 a month and was socked with a $300 utility bill?

Seniors and others should not be shy or prideful about asking for help with their energy bills, Carroll said. The allotment for heating assistance has been increased, even if the qualifying income has not.

If the allotment doesn’t come before the utility bill is due, consumers should call their provider and ask to make a partial payment rather than skimping on other life-necessities, Carroll said.

Seniors should also look into establishing a budget billing plan with their utility that charges consumers a flat monthly fee based on the average consumption over the last 12 months. Budgeting evens out payments so consumers don’t have to pay for January spikes in consumption all at once. That could make it easier for fixed-income consumers to pay the bill, but won’t reduce the amount they have to pay for their gas.

&uot;Customers are not going to skip the costs, they are just going to spread them out over a year,&uot; said John Ruff Communications Manager for Alliant Energy.

It is not too late to winterize your house. Seniors should call the toll-free number on their energy bill and ask for a free energy audit for suggestions on winterizing, said Ruff.

Alliant officials met Friday to discuss other possible courses of action to ease the burden on fixed-income consumers, said Ruff.

Residents’ most immediate concern is to keep from freezing, but there is a larger issue to consider as well.

&uot;Consumers in this country go from one energy crisis to the next,&uot; he said. High gasoline prices last summer were followed by high natural gas prices this winter, and are sure to be followed by a widespread electrical shortage, he said.

&uot;If we don’t act, things will continually get worse,&uot; he said. &uot;We just can’t sit by and hope things will resolve themselves.&uot;

A succession of mild winters reduced the demand for natural gas and a lot of producers got out of the business, he said. Now the demand is there but supplies are low, raising the price. Recent, if unfounded, scares about a shortage of natural gas drove prices even higher.

Alliant decided against locking in on a price late last year because it was too risky, Ruff said. When they had the option, gas prices were at a then record high.

&uot;If you guess wrong and the prices go down, customers still have to pay that cost,&uot; he said. &uot;What we tried to do is to use responsible models of the natural gas market.

Energy consumption has increased 30 percent over the last seven years, but the infrastructure providing consumers with product has not been changed to keep up with demand, he said.

&uot;The problem we have is the lack of a coherent energy policy for the country,&uot; he said. &uot;We need to adopt one.&uot;

A coherent energy policy could tame market fluctuations by providing incentives to continue developing natural resources even when the demand is not as great.

&uot;There’s been years of opposition to building more infrastructure,&uot; he said.

No one wants power lines or power plants in their backyard, he said. A trove of natural gas sits in Alaska while a pipeline goes unused because environmental groups and energy representatives can’t agree on impacts. There are not enough natural gas processors to keep up with this year’s demand.

&uot;These issues are clearly coming home to roost,&uot; Ruff said.

Seniors concerned about their energy payments or with other questions can reach Harold Carroll at the Senior Resources Advocacy Program office, 373-0695.