CAPITAL REGION — As upstate got a taste of winter Monday, the window opened for low- to moderate-income New Yorkers to start applying for help paying their heating bills.
Federal projections are that natural gas will be more expensive this winter than last and that heating oil will be less expensive. But for some people, whether chronically needy or suddenly facing hard times because of COVID, the price shifts don’t change the bottom line: They’ll have trouble paying their heating bills.
The state announced Monday that homeowners and renters could begin to apply for a share of the $328 million available in New York through the Home Energy Assistance Program, which assisted 65,879 households in the Capital Region and 1.6 million statewide last winter. The start date has traditionally been Nov. 15.
HEAP applications are submitted through local departments of social services and grants of up to $741 are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis until the funding pot is empty. The eligibility limits are slightly higher this winter than last: A family of four can have an annual gross income of up to $60,226 and still qualify for benefits.
This casts a fairly wide net in Schenectady County — the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the median household income at $63,785 in Schenectady County and $44,826 in just the city of Schenectady.
National Grid, which supplies natural gas to the area, said nearly 7,000 residential customers in the county received HEAP money in the year ended Oct. 31, 2020.
Providing guidance to about 2,200 of them was Annie O’Connell, the National Grid consumer advocate assigned to Schenectady County. She expects to be busier this winter thanks to the COVID crisis, though she’ll be working via phone and email rather than in-person at various agencies that serve the needy, also thanks to the public health crisis.
“In combination with COVID-19 and with people being home more, they’re going to be using their heat more,” she said.
Energy use dropped noticeably during the early days of the pandemic. National Grid recorded a 16 percent decrease in March through May, though it began to bounce back in August.
The Schenectady County Department of Social Services two months ago began distributing HEAP applications to those who would need help, O’Connell said, which eliminated some of the stress involved in rushing to fill them out Nov. 1.
She typically assists low-income and unemployed people, as well as those with disabilities or other special needs.
After 14 years working with the same community of people in the county and the same group of agencies that help them, O’Connell is known to both and is usually able to navigate those who need help to the right source of assistance quickly.
After that initial first HEAP grant, customers may be eligible for followup emergency HEAP grants starting Jan. 4. National Grid can connect its qualifying residential customers with other types of assistance, including Care And Share, which funnels donations from other ratepayers to pay bills for the needy.
Utilities in New York can’t cut off service for nonpayment of bills during the COVID crisis, but the bills still will be due when the crisis ends.
National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said the utility predicts the cost of heating with gas will be about 10 percent higher in upstate New York this winter than last, due to increases in both the cost it pays suppliers for gas and what it charges customers to deliver that gas.
For the Nov. 1-March 31 heating season, the typical single-family housing unit in National Grid’s upstate New York service area burns an average of 717 therms of gas; that is expected to cost $515 for the winter of 2020-2021.
Actual gas use and cost will be influenced by how mild or severe the season is.
Heading into the heating season, prices for other forms of home heating fuel are markedly lower than last year and lower still than the year before.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority reported the following average retail prices for the last week in October in the Capital Region:
- Heating oil — $2.13 a gallon, down from $2.90 the same time a year ago and $3.14 two years ago.
- Kerosene — $2.74 a gallon, down from $3.33 and $3.58.
- Propane — $2.34 a gallon, down from $2.53 and $2.85.