Whether you heat your home with gas, oil or electricity, your energy bills are going to be shocking this winter. Compared to this time last year, the price of fuel oil is up 72%, and for some utility customers the cost of electricity and natural gas are up 129% and 28.6%, respectively.
Global energy markets are complex, but the reason for your higher bill is fairly straightforward: fossil fuels are really expensive right now. And here in New England, natural gas and oil are the primary ways we heat our homes and run our electrical grid.
The good news is that if you’re worried about being able to pay your utility bills this winter, Massachusetts is a particularly generous state when it comes to heating assistance. Here’s what you need to know:
What assistance is available?
Most fuel assistance in Massachusetts comes from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, better known as LIHEAP (pronounced lie-heep). The name of the program is a bit of a misnomer, though, since you don’t actually have to be “low income” to get help.
LIHEAP money comes from the federal government but is distributed through designated community action groups and local nonprofits.
- To qualify you need to make no more than 60% the state’s median income level, which in dollar terms, is $81,561 for a family of four and $42,411 for an individual.
The amount of assistance you get depends on your income and fuel source, said Charlie Harak, a Massachusetts-based attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “But in no category is it trivial money. So it’s worth everybody looking at.”
Aside from LIHEAP, major utilities like National Grid and Eversource offer discounted fuel and electricity rates and have several payment programs for people struggling with their bills. Some fuel oil companies will also allow you to spread the cost of filling your tank over a 12-month period instead of paying your bill in lump sum.
A third and important option for assistance is the Massachusetts Good Neighbor Energy Fund. Administered by the Salvation Army, this program offers financial help to people who are temporarily struggling to pay their utility bills but don’t qualify for LIHEAP. According to the group, it helped over 1,000 families in the state pay an energy bill last year.
How do I apply for LIHEAP?
You can apply with the local community action agency or nonprofit that serves your area in-person, online, or over the phone. If this is your first time applying, you’ll need a few documents:
- Photo ID
- Proof of income
- Document showing an active lease or mortgage
- A past or present bill from your heating vendor
It can take several weeks for your application to process — and for the money to appear in your account, said Elizabeth Berube, who leads Citizens For Citizens, Inc., a community group in Taunton. Berube is urging people to apply as early as possible to avoid significant delays during peak winter.
“We don’t want anyone to do anything dangerous to stay warm, like using the oven,” she said.
The application process is faster for people who have previously applied because they only need to update income and other relevant personal information.
If you’re in a crisis and can’t wait that long, you should contact your local agency. Kathy Tobin, the energy director at Action for Boston Community Development, said that organizations like hers are able to authorize emergency services or an oil delivery within a couple of days.
“Chances are they’ll get that delivery that day,” she said. “We want to be able to help all the people who really are in emergency.”
When will I get my money?
As soon as you’re approved to receive LIHEAP assistance, your gas or electricity provider will be informed and the assistance money will be credited to your utility account. The utility will apply the credit to your monthly heating bills from Nov. 1 to April 30, or until it runs out.
For example, if your household qualifies for $1,000 in assistance and your monthly gas bill is around $250, the assistance would cover four months worth of bills.
It’s worth noting that if you qualify for heating assistance — or if you or someone in your household receive benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANIF) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — your utility will provide you with gas or electricity at a discounted rate.
This winter, National Grid customers will get a 32% discount on electricity and a 25% discount on gas. For Eversource customers, the discount rates are 36% and 25%, respectively.
If you heat your home with oil, things work a little differently. If you qualify for LIHEAP, your fuel will be delivered by specific companies that have signed state contracts to provide discounted oil. The cost of filling your tank will be deducted from your LIHEAP benefit.
While the amount of money you can get depends on the total amount of money available for the program and the number of people who apply, the state currently estimates that benefits will be between $660 and $1,600 this winter.
If I can’t pay my bill, will my heat be turned off?
The short answer is “no.”
Massachusetts law says that between Nov. 15 and March 15, a utility cannot shut off the gas or electricity used to heat your home if you’re experiencing “financial hardship” and can’t pay your bill. If you are having financial troubles, contact your utility. They may ask you to fill out a form, like this one from National Grid.
The wintertime ban on heat shut-offs also applies to households where someone is severely ill, elderly, or under 12 months old. It does not, however, apply to small businesses or other commercial customers.
In some very rare circumstances a utility company will shut off a non-LIHEAP customer’s gas or electricity during the winter. If that happens, it’s only after multiple attempts to reach the person and let me know about payment plans or other assistance options, said John Lamontagne of National Grid.
“Unfortunately, in some limited cases, customers have chosen not to respond to our outreach, make any payment or set up a payment plan,” he said. “In these cases, we had to take the next step, which is to disconnect their service.”
Last winter, Lamontagne said National Grid shut off electricity to 709 households and gas to 51 households, though none of the gas shut offs were for systems that heated homes. For context, National Grid serves 1.3 million customers in the state.
I’m already behind on payments. Is there assistance for that?
Yes. The first thing you should know is that if you qualify for fuel assistance and are behind on payments, your utility company may retroactively apply the discounted gas or electric rate, which could make a big dent in what you owe.
It’s also important to note that under Massachusetts law, you will not accrue interest on any unpaid utility bills.
Even if you don’t qualify for fuel assistance, your utility will most likely help you figure out a payment program. Broadly speaking, there are three forms of assistance:
- Deferred payment program: This can help you slowly you pay off any unpaid energy bills
- Budget payment program: This is a forward-looking plan that will spread the cost of energy over a 12-month period. This can be particularly helpful for oil customers
- Arrears management program: This relatively new program allows you to erase past unpaid utility debt by making your current monthly bills.
Is there enough money for everyone?
Yes and no.
“Yes” in the sense that everyone who qualifies for LIHEAP assistance will get some money, but “no” in the sense that the benefits are unlikely to cover the total cost of heating bills for everyone who needs help. That’s because the amount you receive depends on how big the initial pot of money is.
Last year, thanks to federal COVID-19 stimulus money, Massachusetts received $307 million in LIHEAP funding — more than double what the state normally receives.
This year, Massachusetts is so far slated to get about $159 million from congress. Although far less than last year, it’s still more than a typical winter. What’s more, the state legislature now says it will kick in an extra $57 million in heating assistance, up from the $10 million it originally promised.
Is there anything else I can do to lower my heating bill?
One of the best ways to lower your heating bill is to “weatherize” your home to make it more energy efficient.
The state has an energy efficiency program, Mass Save, that will send someone to your home — whether you own or rent — to do a free energy audit. Mass Save will also help you pay for things like home insulation, energy efficient windows and new heating or electrical appliances.
Aside from Mass Save, experts say that simple things like sealing your windows with clear plastic wrap, using a smart thermostat or turning down the heat at night can also make a difference in what you owe every month.
The bottom line
There’s financial help available if you’re struggling with rising energy costs.
Too many people automatically assume they don’t qualify for LIHEAP assistance, said Berube of Citizens For Citizens, Inc., when in fact, they do. Last year, only 16% of the more than 800,000 people eligible in Massachusetts applied for LIHEAP aid
“Please apply,” Berube urged, adding that “people should not fear that there’s not enough money to go around.”
And remember, if you’re worried about paying your bill, you should communicate with your utility or oil vendor about assistance.
“They’re not eager to shut people off,” said Harak of the National Consumer Law Center. “They have an interest in connecting their customers with resources because that also helps their bottom line.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said you automatically qualify for LIHEAP if you receive certain other federal benefits. That is incorrect. You automatically qualify for discounted utility rates. We regret the error.