DTE Energy CareForce volunteers hold multilanguage door hangers with energy saving tips and sign-up info for a free home energy consultation.

DTE Energy CareForce volunteers hold multilanguage door hangers with energy saving tips and sign-up info for a free home energy consultation.

Photo provided by DTE Energy

Programs aim to help low-income households with utility bills

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published November 29, 2017

 Keith Bradford, a DTE Energy CareForce volunteer, helps a customer applying for an affordable payment assistance program.

Keith Bradford, a DTE Energy CareForce volunteer, helps a customer applying for an affordable payment assistance program.

Photo provided by DTE Energy

METRO DETROIT — There’s a theme in Michigan every year: As the temperature drops, heating costs simultaneously increase.

But even though that cold spell is coming, not all individuals and family households can quell their financial woes. There are a few different options to help people who have fallen on hard times or live on fixed incomes.

For example, the state offers programs via services like Helping Hand, as well as through its Health and Human Services Department. Companies like DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, and organizations like the Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW) and the Salvation Army, offer residents assistance using different income-based price models.

DTE Senior Communications Specialist David Peterson said the state sets the guidelines in terms of income-based options, and companies like DTE then offer various programs and reprieves depending on where Michiganders fall on the financial scale — notably, in terms of household income in relation to how many individuals live in a particular household. Calculations differ each year, he added, with new figures usually determined each fall season.

For example, low-income customers at or below 110 percent of the national federal poverty level may be eligible for home heating credits. Income eligibility guidelines also reference the State Emergency Relief Program, Residential Income Assistance Credit, and THAW.

DTE recently concluded its eighth annual Week of Warmth — a series of events in the Detroit area that help raise and distribute funds for THAW. One event in the series includes Customer Assistance Day, which is normally conducted 15 to 20 times per year throughout the state, depending on weather factors.

“We go out to a particular neighborhood and we partner with one of the local churches, what have you, in that community,” Peterson said. “And we sign people up for a home energy consultation.”

DTE employees talk to residents, analyze their energy usage and offer tips to save money, such as putting pipe wrap on natural gas lines or changing home lightbulbs to LEDs. 

DTE also offers home energy consultations, in which residents are alerted via door hangers two to three weeks prior to an event. Those who sign up can learn what they are eligible for in regard to payment assistance programs, including being linked with local water departments or other electrical companies.

Whitney Skeans, customer assistance manager at Consumers Energy, said the majority of income-based programs in relation to energy efficiency hover around the 150 percent poverty line — or, just below $37,000 per year for a family of four. That is criteria also adhered to by nonprofit organizations.

She said her company never wants to cut off customers who are facing hard times with past-due bills, and most of the nonprofits are the ones who actually link customers to guideline-based income levels. The problem is many people don’t know where to start.

“Our No. 1 goal is to ensure customers who have a need don’t wait until a crisis,” Skeans said. “There’s a tendency — and as we’ve seen in the past — for individuals to wait until they receive a shut-off notice to seek help. That becomes an emergency — a health and safety issue.”

Consumers Energy serves approximately 2.6 million residential customers, with approximately 6.5 million customers overall statewide when commercial customers are factored into the mix. Skeans said the estimate is that approximately 400,000 of those customers sit at or below the income level to qualify for energy assistance, based on census data and the economies of the communities that are served.

Customer profiles are continually updated, she added, so that when assistance is received, it is noted in their accounts. That way, the company has an understanding of different individuals and household needs based on history.

Help is available for more than heating costs. The Great Lakes Water Authority launched the Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, on March 1, 2016. 

WRAP provides direct bill payment assistance, and it also provides funds for home audits, fixture repairs and replacements that will aid in conserving system resources in the long term.

Weather plays a role in people seeking assistance.

“I would say in general (the need is) pretty consistent, and it really fluctuates with the economy. It fluctuates with weather,” Peterson said. “We find it more challenging for us to get customers to come out to seek assistance when you have a season like last year, when we didn’t have a terrible winter, so people are less likely to seek help than when we have a really cold winter.”

Peterson encouraged people to see what utilities can do now to help, before the cold arrives.

DTE assistance programs can be found at www.dteenergy.com/help. Consumers Energy suggests that those seeking help dial 211, as part of the United Way — a free 24-hour service that links people with local agencies that can help them the most. Find more information about WRAP at www.glwater.org.