With winter arriving in force and temperatures forecasted to plummet below zero, energy-assistance advocates are reminding Montanans of their options for keeping the heat on, whether they’re facing an emergency or simply don’t have sufficient income to fully pay their utility bills.
The state of Montana administers the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP), for which residents can apply locally at Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana (CAPNM). The program assists thousands of Northwest Montana households annually.
Meanwhile, Energy Share of Montana, a statewide nonprofit, is a financial-assistance program for people in need of emergency help with energy bills. It helps nearly 3,000 families statewide each year, including hundreds in Northwest Montana.
For general income-based assistance eligibility, residents are encouraged to apply for LIEAP. While Energy Share factors income into its application assessments, the program doesn’t have income guidelines and instead focuses on circumstances, such as situations that have led to a disconnect notice from the applicant’s energy provider.
“We help people who are in emergency situations, a disconnect notice or they’re low on propane, due to circumstances beyond their control — unanticipated things that come up in life like they do for all of us,” Rachel Haberman, executive director of Energy Share of Montana, said. “If they have no resources to pay that bill, that’s when we try to help them.”
The LIEAP program is administered through the state Department of Public Health and Humans Services and facilitated by local assistance offices such as CAPNM, which serves Flathead, Lincoln, Lake and Sanders Counties. LIEAP pays a portion of winter energy bills, with utilities offering recipients discounts on their bills.
The state also administers a weatherization program, which helps low-income households reduce their energy costs through services such as installing energy-saving measures like insulation, decreasing the amount of air infiltration from doors and windows and performing efficiency and safety checks on heating systems.
Weatherization applications are also available at CAPNM. Eligibility for the weatherization and LIEAP programs is based on income and resource limits, and both homeowners and renters may apply for the programs.
There are also tribal energy-assistance offices on the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations.
Haberman said people who don’t qualify for LIEAP or perhaps haven’t received enough assistance to get them through winter can apply for Energy Share. The organization says there are a wide variety of situations that lead people to seek assistance, including “unexpected expenses, deaths in the family, non-working or unsafe heating systems, illnesses or injuries, domestic abuse situations, and loss of employment or reduced wages,” among others.
Haberman said people should realize that their energy can be shut off in the dead of winter if the bills haven’t been paid.
“Sometimes people think that can’t happen,” she said. “But it can and sometimes it does. Utility companies try really hard to work with their customers, but they’re a business too. I encourage them to contact their energy providers as soon as they know there’s a problem or going to be a problem. But I think it’s important for people to know that they can be shut off.”
Energy Share relies on donations, with 100 percent of funds used to help someone in need. People can donate through www.energysharemt.com/donate-now, look for a pledge card/donation envelope in their utility bills or mail a check to Energy Share of Montana, PO Box 5959, Helena, MT 59604-5959.
Tony Flynn, who represents NorthWestern Energy on the Energy Share of Montana board and serves as the board president, said the emergency-assistance program “has helped so many Montanans over the years who were facing such rough times.”
“Please help share the warmth,” Flynn said, “and if you can, send a gift to Energy Share today.”