October 6, 2008

North Dakota to Receive Record Amount of Energy Assistance Money



North Dakota is receiving $34 million for a utility-bill assistance program this year as part of a record $5 billion package approved by Congress this week in response to steep energy prices.

That's compared to last year's $20.5 million for North Dakota, about $5 million of which was allocated for tribal programs; this year, about $7 million may be allocated for tribal programs, although those numbers have not been confirmed, said Ron Knutson, director of energy assistance for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

"We're very pleased with it. We didn't know what to expect,"Knutson said.

The money is for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program; as its name implies, it assists with a portion of energy bills for poorer families that meet income requirements.

In fact, this year, those requirements were raised for North Dakota:A family of three with an income of about $34,000 is now eligible to apply.

This record-breaking grant money was announced just in time for winter's intensified energy costs, which could be an estimated 45 percent higher than last year's prices. Nationally, prices could fluctuate from 15 percent to 50 percent higher than last year's energy bills.

Mark Hanson with Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. said the company is expecting home heating prices to be about $225 more this year than last; that number is down from the summer projection of $350 more for this upcoming heating season.

"Our prices last winter were about the lowest they'd been in seven years, so that's part of the difference we're making up,"Hanson said.

The utility company, which distributes natural gas and electricity to Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, purchased gas at the high summer prices in preparation for winter

"We have to be prepared for the coldest days,"Hanson added. "We pull about 60 percent out of storage on a given day."

Knutson with energy assistance said about 15,000 people use the program each year, but anticipated more may apply this year.

"That's, of course, because of energy prices,"he said. "Everybody knows it's going to go up."

(Reach reporter Crystal R. Reid at 250-8261 or [email protected])

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