Kentuckians likely to pay more for heating this season

Energy costs already are too much for some Kentuckians to keep up with and it will likely get worse this winter.

Natural gas costs have gone up, and East Kentucky Power and Kentucky Utilities are asking for rate increases.

"We're a little nervous about that," said Charlie Lanter of the Community Action Council, which offers home heating assistance for low-income families.

Here is why he is nervous. Over the last year, the Community Action Council in Lexington saw the number of requests for help through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program increase about 25 percent to more than 25,000, Lanter said.

And the group has noted a sharp increase in people needing help recently.

"We're hearing from people that they're having to make extremely difficult decisions. Do I keep the heat on or do I get my prescriptions filled?" he said. "It's tough choices. We're really worried about it going into winter."

Congress recently approved a measure to nearly double the federal money available to help poor people cope with home heating costs, whether they use oil, gas or electricity. But advocates say the $5.1 billion is unlikely to be enough.

And even with the federal increase, Lanter said it might not be enough. Last year, the money ran out in February when it would typically last until March "if not April."

In many parts of the country, the number of people whose electricity or gas has been shut off for nonpayment of their bills is up sharply as people struggle to cope with higher prices and a shaky economy.

Shut-offs have been running 17 percent higher than last year among customers of New York state's major utilities, and 22 percent higher in economically hard-hit Michigan. They are up in all or part of dozens of other states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and California, according to an Associated Press check of regulators and energy companies.

The increase in shutoffs is not as large in Kentucky.

From September 2007 to August 2008, Kentucky Utilities cut off service to 78,000 customers, up 6,000 from the same period a year earlier. That number can include the same customer multiple times. Despite the increase, it is still below a comparable number from 2004 to 2005.

Statewide, the Public Service Commission compiles the number of shutoffs for electricity and natural gas customers.

Disconnected accounts, again including the same customers multiple times in some instances, totaled just more than 206,000 between July 2007 to June 2008. That was up about 6,000 from the same time a year earlier. But like KU's numbers indicated, those were down from previous years.

Spokesman Andrew Melnykovych said the spike in previous years was likely the skyrocketing natural gas costs that came before and then were compounded by Hurricane Katrina.

Utilities, by policy and regulation, cut the power only as a last resort, and generally only after customers have run up hundreds of dollars in past-due bills. Many utilities instead offer extensions and payment arrangements.

Laws across the country protect the elderly and the ailing, and many states have cold-weather rules that make it hard or impossible to shut off service in winter.

That's the case in Kentucky where the spikes in shutoffs come in October and March or April. Between then, utilities don't shut off service because of those rules, Melnykovych said.

Those rules may be the only thing that keep the heat on for some families this winter.

"Because of high gasoline prices, many families at the lower incomes have really been squeezed," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. "It's like triage: You pay the most important things, and the last thing you pay is your utility bill."