by Marisol Beas, California Black Media
It is time to say goodbye to summer and welcome autumn, and soon winter will be upon us. It will be time to decorate for the holidays, enjoy family gatherings and stay inside to keep warm. Also, with all the holiday traditions and cold weather, higher gas and electric bills are to be expected. However, even with the colder weather and additional energy usage, there are many ways to help keep energy costs down.
The Winter Fuels Outlook projects that expenditures on energy are expected to be higher because of colder weather this year. This could mean higher bill costs for households, and as found in the Residential Consumption Survey (RECS) one in three U.S. households face challenges in paying their energy utility bills. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) offers many programs like CARE, FERA, ESA and REACH to assist customers with their energy bills.
Marlene Murphy-Roach, director of the Income Qualified Programs at PG&E, said, “As a service provider, we want to ensure that we have the right programs to address the unique needs of disadvantaged communities as well as the lower income or the limited income customer segment.”
The Residential Consumption Survey (RECS) found that lower income households “reported reducing or forgoing necessities such as food and medicine to pay an energy bill.” Also, households surveyed by RECs also reported “keeping their home at an unhealthy or unsafe temperature” because they couldn’t pay their energy bill.
PG&E has programs to help like CARE which provides up to a 20 percent discount on utility bills for lower income households. Even customers “who are earning a little bit more than the income qualifications for CARE” can apply to another program, FERA. Murphy-Roach said that families of three or more could be approved for a discount of 12 percent on their utility bill through the FERA program.
FERA users will soon be able to gain an 18 percent discount on their electric usage due to new legislation which recently passed. Murphy-Roach said there are 1.4 million PG&E customers utilizing the CARE program, which represents approximately 89.5 percent of customers who qualify for the program.
For the FERA program, Murphy-Roach said, “[We believe] there are a lot more customers that qualify for the FERA program who are not taking advantage of it.”
RECS also found that households struggle to repair broken equipment in the home which negatively increases their financial difficulties. According to Murphy-Roach, customers, like these, can benefit from the Energy Savings Assistance Program (ESA) which seeks to weatherize their home. This increases the home’s ability to stay warm during the winter and cooler during the summer.
“This program,” Murphy-Roach said, “targets customers whose income levels are 200 percent of the federal poverty line.”
RECS reported that households may lose the use of heating or air-conditioning equipment entirely which occurs when equipment breaks or households cannot afford to fix equipment. The ESA program is available to customers who are qualified for CARE, including homeowners and renters. Customers can get weatherization, such as weather stripping, attic insulation and replace older, inefficient appliances, such as refrigerators.
“The ESA program,” Murphy-Roach stated, “also provides customers information on how to reduce energy usage during the winter time.”
“PGE customers can also sign up for Budget Billing during the winter time,” said Murphy-Roach, “to help level the bill and remove the peaks they will see in the winter months or the summer months when they are using lots of heat or air conditioning.”
To assist customers in their awareness of their energy use, Bill Forecast Alerts will send notifications to help customers avoid the surprise of a high bill and take action early to change behaviors to better control usage.
“In addition, customers who find themselves in tough situations … and experience a real hardship [where] they cannot pay their bill,” she says, “have a one-time chance to apply for a program called REACH (Relief for Energy Assistance Through Community Help). Customers can use REACH once every 18 months to gain assistance through community help which pays for the customer’s utility bill during an emergency.”
Another program Murphy-Roach recommends is the Home Energy Checkup which helps customers get a self-assessment and personalized energy plan to help them save money. The Home Energy Checkup is designed to give “immediate tips and tricks that [customers] can use and execute … so that they can take control of their usage.” She said, “all you have to do is sign up online and become informed.”
Murphy-Roach says that living in Fresno and working closely with diverse communities has helped her see up close the range of needs throughout the community. She says that her interactions with the community have helped her “think about how to continue to look for better and different ways to serve diverse communities.”
“For me, this is more than just a job. For me, this is having a job that actually makes a huge difference to a lot of our customers,” says Murphy-Roach. “We are committed to get to the hard to reach communities,” and she wants to make sure people are “aware of all the different discounted programs … and that those programs can be combined.”
Murphy-Roach says that she wants to ensure that the faith-based organizations and the community-based organizations recognize that programs can be combined to really help the impact and drive down the average bill for customers who qualify for the programs.
“We want to get to a place where a one hundred percent of all the customers that qualify for their programs are enrolled,” said Murphy-Roach.