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Montana DPHHS offering assistance program as energy rates rise

Front page of application for energy assistance program
Posted at 7:46 AM, Oct 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-25 09:46:46-04

BILLINGS - Energy rates, like many other costs, have been on the rise nationwide and Montanans may have already noticed a rise in their energy bill.

NorthWestern Energy raised its rates on Oct. 1, equaling a rise of $11.19 in electric rates for the average household and 48¢ for natural gas.

The Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) regulates the prices and profits for utility companies like NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities Company.

“A utility is allowed the opportunity to earn a fair rate of return on its investment, and in return, the utility will provide safe, reliable services at a reasonable price to its customers," explained PSC analyst Gary Duncan. "That’s called the regulatory contract.”

Duncan explained that the companies are seeking the rate hikes to offset their own rising costs.

The companies have to request a rate case through the PSC, and then the PSC has nine months to make a decision.

During those nine months, the public is open to making comments or intervening. All comments are accepted and public hearings are also held.

“Anyone else that wants to file comments on this can file comments with the commissions on our website," Duncan says.

While NorthWestern Energy customers saw an increase at the beginning of October, MDU is also expected to ask the PSC for approval to raise rates for customers.

“MDU is going to file a rate case, electric, on Nov. 1. That’s what they told us. They are planning on filing," Duncan said.

Duncan tells MTN News that this isn't the utility companies being greedy, but rather attempting to stay in business.

While all costs are on the rise, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) offers an assistance program to help with energy costs for low-income ratepayers.

The Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program operates annually from October to April.

There is a sliding scale for qualifications, dependent on income level and household members.

DPHHS Community Service bureau chief Sara Loewen tells MTN News that the federal food-aid program, SNAP, and other assistance program participants automatically qualify.

Loewen says that applications opened on Oct. 1 and that the agency is receiving an increase in federal funding to help more Montanans.

"We always encourage folks to apply. We have the program set up so that we don't have to turn people away," Loewen says.

Loewen says that with inflation and rising costs of things like groceries, every little bit helps.

Loewen is encouraging anyone who is struggling to pay their bills to apply.