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Citing extreme consumer demand, major CT energy assistance program is on hold

Electric heat pumps are becoming more popular in Americans coldest climates
The Washington Post
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Quinton Peaslee, 33, an electrician with ReVision Energy, a New England company specializing in solar energy and electric heat pump installations, works on the installation of a heat pump in a home in Windham, Maine, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Improved energy efficiency and new tax incentives have contributed to the popularity of heat pumps in New England, as many homeowners are facing increased costs of heating their homes with oil, propane and other fossil fuels.

A year-round emergency energy assistance program in Connecticut is pausing for the month of March, saying it can’t keep up with demand from customers struggling with their bills.

Energy assistance requests to Operation Fuel doubled from July to October, said Brenda Watson, the agency’s executive director. She said demand only got worse when the state’s two major utilities – Eversource and United Illuminating – raised their rates on Jan. 1.

“It’s impacting consumers of all diverse incomes,” Watson said. “And it’s impacting programs like Operation Fuel – who can’t really handle the amount of demand based on our resources and our staffing.”

Operation Fuel helps customers struggling with electricity, water, natural gas, oil and other energy bills. The nonprofit is funded through a combination of money from ratepayers, foundations, corporate donors like utility companies and individual donors.

Watson said stopping programs in March will allow her group to catch up on a backlog of roughly 3,000 assistance applications.

“This is not about our funding,” Watson said. “This is really about being able to pause and allow our team to catch up to the influx of applications that we’ve received. And prepare for the next round of applications that are going to come in.”

Watson said she expects applications to spike again later this year after winter shut-off moratoriums for certain utility customers expire.

In April, she said the group will resume providing assistance. But it will reduce its grants from $1,000 to $500 per household.

“We’ll be able to serve more people,” Watson said. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to fill tanks depending on what the fuel prices are – or will be – as the months go on.”

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s congressional delegation announced Wednesday that the state will receive an additional $19.6 million in federal funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The money is part of the 2023 omnibus appropriations bill.

Since November, Connecticut has received more than $105 million in LIHEAP funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to members of the delegation.

“This support is particularly important as over 40% of Connecticut households rely on home heating oil or petroleum products to meet their primary heating needs,” Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., said in a statement.

The share of Connecticut households using heating oil or other petroleum products for home heating is the fourth-highest share for any state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The state also has one of the consistently highest costs for electricity in the nation.

“This problem is so much bigger than Operation Fuel,” Watson said. “This really is up to the leaders who have the power to do something about this problem. It’s now beginning to impact many more households than we had ever seen before.”

Watson said people who need emergency bill assistance while Operation Fuel is processing its application backlog should dial 2-1-1 or their utility company to get on a payment plan.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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