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September 20, 2014

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With summer approaching, some sweating out how to pay power bills

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Spencer Holladay

Beyond the Sun

While most people are raving about the warm early spring days, the weather has Glenn Tshudy dreading the summer, when he will run his air conditioning round-the-clock at his Henderson home.

Like some 136,000 of his fellow Las Vegas Valley residents, the 48-year-old is struggling to pay his bills while unemployed.

He has cut out as many expenses as he can, and he tries to keep his power use to a minimum. He can’t live without electricity, though, and “no matter what I do, that bill comes in at $150 or more every month,” he says.

“It would make my life a whole lot easier if I could get some kind of break on my electricity rates, if they could remove some of the fees or knock off part of the rate while I’m unemployed.”

His problem is he isn’t quite poor enough to qualify for the state’s energy assistance program because he is getting unemployment checks.

With the Great Recession more than two years old, Tshudy is one of many Nevada residents who need help with their electric bills but can’t get it. The state Public Utilities Commission is trying to figure out if state energy aid programs need to be changed, and if so, how. Today is the deadline for some comments to be filed for the investigation, but the inquiry is expected to continue for weeks if not months.

Electricity rates have risen dramatically in recent years as NV Energy pursues a pricey state-mandated quest for renewable energy and energy independence. Although electricity here still costs less than in several neighboring states, the huge amounts of electricity necessary to live normal lives through hot summers here and cold winters up north often equate to hefty energy bills for Nevada families.

Programs to help low-income people pay their bills don’t reach everyone and don’t work as well as they can, those who work with the programs say. With the cratering of the Nevada economy, they’ve seen a massive increase in need but decreased funding.

And even as they’ve raised rates, utilities have gotten tougher on customers who get behind on their bills, says Daniele Dreitzer, executive director of HopeLink Family Resource Center, an organization that helps people enroll in the state programs. A few years ago utilities wouldn’t shut off service until the overdue bill was in the hundreds of dollars. Today customers are getting shut off for bills in the double digits, Dreitzer says.

“We’re seeing people getting shut off that they’d never shut off before,” she said. “This is at a time when more people are struggling. It’s truly unprecedented. It’s a challenge.”

It’s a challenge for the Public Utilities Commission too. The state sets the “universal energy charge” that supports the main assistance program. NV Energy collects a fraction of a cent — $0.00039 — per kilowatt hour of electricity used from all electric customers and sends that money to the state. If electric rates go up as expected in the near future, the commission could change the parameters of the program.

But the commission is not yet sure what else it can legally do to adjust bills for low-income Nevadans. It’s not yet sure, for example, if it could reduce some components of the electricity bill for the unemployed or change the criteria for program eligibility.

And the commissioners want to understand this before the next rate case this summer.

“They know things are difficult for people right now,” commission spokeswoman Stephanie Herrera says. “They want to know what all the options are and understand them fully so they can act quickly if it’s appropriate.”

There are four state-affiliated energy bill assistance programs available to low-income Southern Nevadans. Two are weatherization programs aimed at making homes more energy-efficient, which would lower electric bills. But they don’t cover 100 percent of the cost and they aren’t open to everyone.

Another program, administered by the United Way, is available only to low-income seniors, military families and the disabled, and its ability to hand out money depends on income from donations to the program and grants from the NV Energy Foundation.

That leaves the state’s Energy Assistance Program as the option left open to most low-income Nevadans.

But like Tshudy, many struggling in the state aren’t eligible for the program because what little income they do earn is too much. A single person living alone who makes more than $1,354 a month does not qualify. Neither does a couple with a combined income of more than $1,821 a month or a three-person household with an income of more than $2,289 per month.

The commission is expected to take a hard look at whether those income levels need to be adjusted — eventually. First it is gathering information about energy use by low-income residents and comments about what should be done.

Figuring it all out isn’t easy because so many different agencies are involved.

The assistance program works like this:

After the commission gets the fee money from NV Energy, it sends the money to the state welfare and housing office. That office then diverts 25 percent into the weatherization programs. The rest is combined with federal grant money to fund the energy assistance program.

People can apply to the program through a few preapproved assistance organizations. When a person meets the residency, income and energy use requirements, a lump sum is calculated for his power bill account and the state welfare office sends the money back to NV Energy, which credits the low-income resident’s bill.

One problem, advocates for the poor say, is that not everyone knows about the programs and those who do tend to use up their credit within a few months, often before the worst weather arrives. They can only apply for assistance once a year, and they can only use one program at a time.

This is particularly problematic for senior citizens on fixed incomes who face extremely difficult decisions when utility rates go up. While they may qualify for several programs and could make it financially if they were allowed to enroll in all of them, they have to choose just one. That’s led some seniors to turn off the air conditioning or central heating, even in extreme weather, because they can’t afford the bills, Dreitzer says.

“It’s dangerous,” she says. “They’re making decisions that could adversely affect their health and well-being. That’s what really concerns us.”

The lump sum credit is the main thing people who help administer the program would like to see changed. Aid agencies say a monthly discount would actually be more helpful to residents in the long run. In the past, many people seeking assistance had reduced income for only a short time, but now the state is dealing with people who have been out of work for several months, and in some cases years, with no job prospects in sight.

“Clients are told to pay whatever they can on bills to stretch that benefit out, but when you’re making a decision between medicine or food or the power bill, you’re going to let the power bill go,” Dreitzer says. “It’s very hard for them to really put their money there when they’ve got other problems.”

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