The head of Operation Fuel said the energy assistance program will close applications on Friday in the face of overwhelming demand, and warned that the problem of unpaid bills will only worsen until electric supply rates are expected to drop in July.
Operation Fuel Executive Director Brenda Watson said high electric and fuel prices this winter have driven unprecedented interest in the nonprofit’s heating assistance grants, with more than 1,000 people a week applying for grants to help pay electric, gas or oil bills.
The organization is on track to distribute over 8,000 grants this year, compared to 6,502 in the previous fiscal year. Watson said most of the organization’s clients ask for help with an electricity bill, and warned that there will be an additional surge of calls for help after the winter moratorium for electric service shutoffs ends in May – two months before a drop in supply rates is expected to give customers some relief.
Watson said Operation Fuel’s challenges this year show that the state needs to provide more predictable and adequate funding to nonprofits that provide critical services, like energy assistance. And she said action needs to be taken now to prepare for another surge in calls for help.
Connecticut residential electric customers used 15 percent less electricity this January than last January, but saw their January bills increase 15 percent on average – jumping $30 from $198.67 to $229.57, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Rising energy rates were especially pronounced in New England this winter where reliance on liquefied natural gas drove up electric supply costs, as the average bill increased from $169 to $199 even as usage declined almost 10 percent across the region.
But residential electric customers in Connecticut were still left paying the highest average bills in the continental U.S. – again second only to the $233.27 average bill in Hawaii, which depends on petroleum imports to fire its power plants
Statewide average heating oil prices in Connecticut peaked at $5.927 per gallon in early November, up more than 75 percent from the previous year’s average peak of $3.357 in late October 2021, according to data collected by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
As of the end of March, the average statewide price had dropped back to $3.803 – the lowest since February 2022, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but still higher than the $2.691 average price recorded in late March 2021.
It has been all hands on deck at Operation Fuel responding to applications and calls, Watson said. More than 6,000 calls came in last month when the group paused applications so it could work through a backlog – expecting it would see another surge in applications before the winter moratorium on utility shutoffs ends on May 1.
The surge in requests for help from both Operation Fuel and the state-run Connecticut Energy Assistance Program were expected amid high energy costs. But even with a warm winter that limited the need for heating, Operation Fuel was overwhelmed with requests and forced to close earlier than expected.
Founded in response to the 1979 oil crisis, Operation Fuel was meant to help families struggling to pay for heating, but who earned too much to qualify for the state’s low-income heating assistance program.
Applications for the state assistance program will remain open until May 31 for households earning up to 60 percent of the state median income — up to $76,465 for a family of four. Connecticut residents can apply for up to $2,320 in assistance for electric, gas or heating oil bills by contacting their local community action agency.
The Connecticut Department of Social Services did not answer when asked how much funding was still available for the program.