Cold takes costly budget bite for heating costs

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Even if you dialed back your thermostat and never took off that sweater around the house, it was simply more expensive to keep warm during this long winter, the coldest one that Minnesotans have endured in many years.

The Pioneer Press reports that Xcel Energy says that the average residential customer's heating bill between November and March jumped by a startling 36 percent over the previous winter. That means customers had to shell out an average $665, up from $490.

The company said much of the increase was due to a 26 percent hike in natural gas prices, which sounds steep but is actually less than predicted in January. The utility also noted that customers increased their usage by 18 percent, a result of the bitter temperatures. Xcel spokesman Pat Boland said the company saw residential past-due bills rise by 7 percent.

The Pierce County Herald notes that time is running out for Minnesotans with past-due bills. They must get current or make payment arrangements by April 15th when Minnesota's Cold Weather Rule expires. People having trouble paying their bills are advised to contact their energy company in advance of the deadline to address payment options. Otherwise, they risk having services disconnected. Minnesota's Cold Weather Rule protects residents from having their primary heating source disconnected between mid-October and mid-April.

It's not too late to apply for heating assistance. The legislature approved an additional $20 million for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help about 180,000 Minnesotans cover the cost of keeping warm. In February, Gov. Mark Dayton reduced the threshold to qualify for the program, extending aid to an additional 120,000 households.

Catherine Fair, director of energy assistance for the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties told the Pioneer Press that the organization has distributed nearly $8 million for heating assistance is still receiving 500 applications for aid each week.

To apply for heating assistance, contact the Minnesota Department of Commerce through its website or call 800-657-3710.

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