Feb 052006
Authors: Sara Crocker

There may be relief in sight for those whose pocketbooks are burning up over the high heating costs.

Xcel Energy estimates the average residential bills will drop to about $126 for February, as opposed to the bills of about $183 last month.

This decrease comes from a dip in the cost of natural gas prices, from about $1 per therm to about 80 cents per therm, which is a measurement of heat.

But, even with this break in soaring prices, there are still many Coloradans who are struggling to pay their bills.

"Our last bill was astronomical," said Steven Thomas, a sophomore psychology major who lives in a three-person apartment in Rams Pointe. Thomas said even though he and his roommates tuned their heat down when they left over break their bill was about $129.

The price break is welcome to Thomas and others, but bills are still higher than this time last year by nearly $28. Xcel spokesman Tom Henley said the company does not profit from the sale price of natural gas, and prices have also been higher because the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast have impacted natural gas production.

The additional expense for natural gas has left many in the state needing help paying their bills.

Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), a federally funded program that assists people with their heating bills, has already seen a 13 percent increase in applications for assistance in Larimer County, said Peggy Koskie, manager of LEAP in the county.

Koskie said they see a number of different kinds of people apply, including college students.

"We see a fair amount of college students where they're living in a house and splitting bills," Koskie said.

When evaluating applications, they take income into consideration, but for students, financial aid is exempt. As of Jan. 26, 5,096 people applied for assistance in the county. Approved applications number 2,987, receiving an average benefit of $249.18, Koskie said.

Energy Outreach Colorado (EOC) also assists people with increased heating costs. Unlike LEAP, income is not necessarily a factor.

"We evaluate each person individually," said Jessica Anderson, spokesperson for EOC. She said this year EOC is seeing a lot of people who need help for the first time or who have encountered a hardship which has made it difficult to keep up with the rising bills.

But, some students aren't stressed about mounting costs for gas because their utilities are included in their rent.

"One of my roommates likes to keep (the thermostat) up at 75 or 80," said Peter Fox, a junior mechanical engineering major who lives near Campus West. "We're not concerned as much."

Anderson also noted that EOC needs people who can afford to help to make donations, which are tax deductible, at energyoutreach.org. For those seeking assistance, applications for LEAP can be found at www.colorado.gov/LEAP.

February is typically warmer than January, which will help heating costs as well. But, March, one of the snowier months of the year is right around the corner. However, Henley said he couldn't estimate bills for that month because natural gas prices are based on state and national index prices. These prices generally aren't named until the first week of every month, so it is uncertain how bills will change in the coming months.

Sara Crocker can be reached at regional@colostate.edu.



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