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Cold Weather Rule starts, assistance programs available

Minnesota "Cold Weather Rule" takes effect today, meaning utility companies can’t shut off heat for low-income residential customers until April 15, provided the customers reach out to their utility and work out a plan.

Minnesota's Cold Weather Rule takes effect today, meaning utility companies cannot shut off heat for low-income residential customers until April 15, provided the customers reach out to their utilities and work out a plan.

People who make less than 50 percent of the state's median income ($44,912 for a four-person household) are not required to pay more than 10 percent of their monthly income on heat bills, according to the program. Those over the 50 percent income guideline may be able to put together payment plans, if their utility companies will work with them.

The first step for customers concerned about their ability to pay is to call Minnesota Energy Resources , or whichever local utility company provides heat to them, said representatives from multiple area companies.

"It's difficult to help customers if we don't know what's going on in their households. … We're willing to work with customers, even if they have large account balances, but they have to take the first step and call," said Jim Phillippo, manager of energy efficiency and public benefits for Minnesota Energy.

Utility companies can turn off heat during the next six months for nonpayment, though they must first provide customers with a disconnection notice, payment plan details, a way to appeal if a payment plan can't be set up, a list of assistance providers, methods to conserve energy and a third-party notice form, according to state law.


Minnesota Energy, which serves 51 counties, including much of southeastern Minnesota, has about 2,500 customers who use the Cold Weather Rule program, Phillippo said. About 13,000 of Minnesota Energy's customers receive energy assistance from the state, he said.

While the Cold Weather Rule can help customers who may be in dire straits, energy companies encourage people to find assistance programs offered by the state to help with bills, especially during the winter months.

Three Rivers Community Action administers the state's Energy Assistance Program for Olmsted, Goodhue, Wabasha and Rice counties. The program will not fully pay energy bills for customers, but provides assistance through the federal government based on monthly income, average bill cost and size of household, said Lynette Stott, energy program coordinator.

"It's not designed to pay people's energy bills in entirety; it's to help out," Stott said.

Customers can find the application online at Three Rivers , fill it out and mail, fax or email it to the organization. If they qualify, the assistance does not go directly to the customer. It usually comes in the form of a direct deposit from the state to the utility, Stott said. Last year, Three Rivers processed about 6,700 applications for energy assistance, she said.

"This year, we anticipate we will receive and process around 7,000 applications in those four counties," Stott said.

With last year's extremely cold winter, Stott said the organization saw tons of families come in with mounting bills and in need of help.

"For low-income families, especially in these cold months, our energy bills shoot up and those energy bills can be very, very challenging," she said.


People's Energy Cooperative doesn't have a lot of customers who use the Cold Weather Rule, but the co-op works closely with members on payment plans if they're struggling, said Gwen Stevens, Director of Member and Community Relations.

"We do the best that we can to help members even outside of Cold Weather Rule period. … If making reasonable efforts and paying a reasonable amount, we won't disconnect them," Stevens said.

Minnesota Energy has shifted its focus from Cold Weather Rule coverage into its gas affordability program, Phillippo said. In order to qualify, customers need to be a part of the state's Energy Assistance Program. The gas program will allow customers in arrears two years to pay back half of their bills, and the other half is covered by the program, he said.

"It's a great program. Our customers have been very successful on it," Phillippo said.

Austin Utilities customers can stop into the company's offices to see what their options are and work out a payment plan, and the company will always post an application for the Cold Weather Rule program on doors before disconnecting power, said Melissa Swenson, customer service supervisor.

"We pride ourselves on working with the customers. … We try to be as flexible as we can," Swenson said.

Rochester Public Utilities does have some customers with all-electric heat, and the company will work with those customers on payment plans if they contact RPU, said Tony Benson, RPU spokesman.

"A vast majority of our customers are traditional natural gas heat," Benson said.


The rule applies only to people who use natural gas and electricity to heat their homes, but those who use fuel oil, propane or wood should contact their suppliers and see if payment options are available, according to a news release from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

The state also provides a weatherization program through the Commerce Department, which funds changes to homes to reduce energy bills, like replacing furnaces or water heaters and installing insulation. Locally, that program is also administered by Three Rivers for Goodhue, Rice and Wabasha counties. SEMCAC, another community action group, administers the program in Olmsted County.

"We really try and help lower the household's energy bills by making the house more energy efficient. … We can go in and make some major changes to homes for low-income households and help them cut down on their costs," Stott said.


Cold Weather Rule FAQs

Can my utility company shut off my heat? Yes, all customers must reach out to their utility and set up a payment plan. Many utilities require an application to qualify.

What if my utility company and I can't agree on a payment plan? You can appeal to the state's Public Utilities Commission within 10 days to set up a plan.

What dates does the rule cover? Oct. 15 to April 15


Do I qualify for the program? If your income falls below 50 percent of the state's median income, you can't be made to pay more than 10 percent of monthly income on heating.

What should I do if I can't pay my bill? First, contact your local utility to see if you're able to set up a payment plan. Also, call the state's Energy Assistance Hotline at 1-800-657-3710 or First Call for Help at 211.

(Information from the Public Utilities Commission)

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