As natural gas prices soar and temperatures plummet, Iowans are searching in growing numbers for state assistance with high heating bills.
About 61,600 low-income Iowa families have applied for state assistance to pay their heating bill this winter, 25% more than this time a year ago, said Christine Taylor, bureau chief of the state's Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance program, known as LIHEAP.
"We're seeing a greater number of folks who are in a really hard place," said Katherine Riley Harrington, executive director of the Iowa Community Action Association, a network of groups that help needy Iowans find assistance with food, rent, heat and other needs.
Natural gas bills for customers of MidAmerican Energy, the Des Moines metro's largest utility provider, averaged $116 in December, twice as much as a year earlier, said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the utility. And that month brought relatively mild temperatures compared to the first three weeks of January.
MidAmerican had warned last fall that prices for its 602,200 natural gas customers would climb 60% to 100%. Experts said companies stored less natural gas than usual after COVID-19 shut down much of the country in 2020, cutting business demand. Since then, the economy has picked up, both in the U.S. and globally, pushing energy prices higher.
At the same time as natural gas prices are rising, many Iowa utility customers also will be paying off costs tied to the February 2021 polar vortex. The extended cold snap in Iowa and elsewhere in the country — especially Texas, which was ill prepared for the unexpected sub-zero temperatures — drove natural gas prices to historic highs. It's a cost MidAmerican will be passing on to its customers until April.
Alliant Energy, the state's other large utility, said it expects this year's natural gas bills to be similar to last year's average of $68 a month.
Measures not enough to stave off utility price increases
MidAmerican, Alliant Energy and other utilities said they took precautions leading up to this winter, such as buying and storing natural gas when prices were low to help reduce the hit customers would see. But U.S. Energy Information Administration data shows the price of natural gas at the hub serving the Midwest was 60% higher last week than at the same time a year ago. Prices for propane, widely used for home heating in rural areas of Iowa, were 30% higher than this time last year.
Energy use also affects customers' heating bills. Iowa and other Midwestern states have just endured an arctic blast.
At Sieda Community Action Group in Ottumwa, which provides heating assistance in 10 southeast Iowa counties, people have been showing up with notices warning that their utilities could be disconnected, said Alex Bibby, a program specialist with the group,
Families who qualify for LIHEAP are covered by an October-to-April moratorium on utility shutoffs. Sieda and other community action agencies also have a crisis fund to help families get their heat reconnected.
Typically, Bibby said she sees a rush of people in the spring, when the moratorium is ending. This year, it's happening earlier, she said.
Des Moines mom who lost her job calls heating aid 'a godsend'
As a single parent, Angela Jones, a Des Moines mother of three, said she fell behind on her bills after losing her job in the pandemic. She risked losing her electricity in November, a critical need for her 9-year-old son, who has cystic fibrosis.
She gives Joshua treatments every day to help to clear his lungs, using an electrically powered nebulizer. And she home-schools her 7- and 13-year-olds, who are unable to go to school for fear they would expose their brother to the coronavirus.
The federal energy program "has been a godsend," Jones said, tearing up. "It's imperative that we have electricity for his survival."
One bright spot: Iowa families in need have access to additional funding this year. Taylor, the state's energy assistance bureau chief, said the state estimates families will receive between $700 and $800 this year, as much as $300 more than last year, given added pandemic federal energy assistance.
Where to seek help
To manage costs, Iowa utility customers can sign up with their utility for budget billing, a program designed to provide stable, year-round bills, eliminating the volatility that comes with seasonal costs.
Heating bill assistance
Iowans who qualify can ask for federal assistance to pay their heating bills or weatherize their homes through the state-administered Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, called LIHEAP. For information, visit the Iowa Utilities Board website at http://iub.iowa.gov">iub.iowa.gov. The Iowa Community Action Agency Association at iowacommunty http://action.org">action.org also can help connect people with assistance.