Further ratcheting up the pain of inflation, the Upper Valley is bracing for higher home heating costs and the burden they will place on household budgets this winter. The convergence of pricier fuel and lighter wallets has experts expecting an increased strain on fuel assistance programs and urging eligible people to start planning in the warmer months for the cold realities ahead.
Average fuel costs across Vermont have ballooned in recent years, according to the Vermont Department of Public Service. From July 2019 to July 2022, the cost of propane rose more than 36%, from $2.36 per gallon to $3.22, and both No. 2 heating oil and kerosene have nearly doubled in price. As a result, demand for fuel assistance is also up, but the available assistance may not meet demand.
“We have seen an increase in clients that are in need of assistance within the last few years,” said Joshua Poisson, programs director of energy assistance services at Tri-County Community Action Program. “With prices rising and the COVID epidemic, there are more stressors on households and they need as much help as they can get.”
Cold snaps can burn through a household’s fuel budget, particularly for senior citizens living on fixed incomes and low-income households. But consumers have options to help weather the volatile energy market.
Most fuel dealers offer consumers payment options, including pre-buying at a set rate or a budget plan that spreads payments out over the year. An extension of this is a budget plan with caps or downside protection where customers pay a fee to ensure limits on the high and low ends, essentially “insurance that allows your price to float up to a certain amount and float down,” said Matt Cota , executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.
It is important to check what plans your dealer offers, Cota said.
In addition to shopping around for the best prices, consumers may also find relief from some area nonprofits. Listen, Tri-County Community Action Program and Senior Solutions are among several Upper Valley organizations working to ease the burden of home heating for those in need.
Federal aid is offered through the Fuel and Electricity Assistance Program which is funded by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP. But this program has strict eligibility guidelines; New Hampshire is set to 60% of the area’s median income, while Vermont is set to 185% of the federal poverty line. In New Hampshire, for a four-person household this means an annual household income below $55,500, according to benefits.gov, and in Vermont, that means below $51,348, according to dcf.vermont.gov. This can leave folks just outside the guidelines.
Listen offers heating assistance to those outside LIHEAP’s guidelines and does so without asking for income qualification. The organization can provide $400 in assistance every 12 months, Angela Zhang, Listen’s programs director, said.
In past years, that covered more than a minimum delivery, but “now $400 is barely half a minimum fuel delivery. We are really, really counting on our financial donors more than ever to help us make sure all our neighbors have heat this winter,” she said.
Some programs have seen a funding increase due to pandemic-related aid. “Last winter, the federal government doubled fuel assistance benefits for households that applied,” Zhang stated.
While the amount of money available this year has been increased, “the income limits have changed only slightly since last year and have not kept pace with general inflation or fuel price increases,” said Thom Simmons, nutrition and wellness outreach specialist for Senior Solutions.
Senior Solutions, a nonprofit serving towns in Vermont’s Orange, Windsor, Windham and Bennington counties, works with senior citizens to help sign them up for appropriate federal and state programs.
“Those impacted the greatest are those at risk for social isolation and who are unaware of the program,” Simmons said. “Approximately 50% of eligible seniors do not participate in the program, and they’re leaving money on the table, so it is imperative to promote this.”
While types of aid offered by each organization varies, there is common advice among them for folks applying for fuel assistance this year.
First off, they urge people to apply for the programs as early as possible. Fuel assistance benefits are disclosed only in late November and early December, Zhang said.
“Anyone applying before November will receive the full credit to which they are entitled; if you wait until December to apply, you can only receive 80%; in January that falls to 60%, and February, 40%. No more funding is issued in March,” Simmons said.
It is also important for people to check with their fuel providers to see if they work with assistance programs, as not all do, Simmons said.
The second piece of advice is to weatherize homes as much as possible. LIHEAP also offers weatherization assistance, but there can be a long waitlist. In New Hampshire, the NH Saves program can help with weatherizing, and in the Upper Valley, COVER Home Repair helps low-income homeowners within a 45-minute radius of their facility in White River Junction.
More information about fuel assistance is available from LISTEN, at listencs.org or 603-448-4553; Senior Solutions, at seniorsolutionsvt.org or 802-885-2669; SEVCA, at sevca.org or 802-722-4575; TCCAP, at tccap.org or 603-968-3560; for COVER home repair visit coverhomerepair.org or call 802-296-7241, ext. 6.