Cold comfort; Communities brace for spike in winter fuel.
The coming winter is likely to be a chilly one inside many homes, prompting concerns that the high cost of heating could result in health, safety and widespread economic problems, local and state officials say.
"No matter how you heat your home, you will pay more this year. The outlook is grim," said Michael D. Goodman, director of economic and public policy research at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
The institute predicts that fuel oil will cost Massachusetts residents $1.4 billion more this year than last year.
"Every dollar spent on fuel is one less spent on the local economy," he said. "This strain on spending at local restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters and so on will slow the state's economy, while sending our money overseas to those who sell us the fuel," Mr. Goodman said.
Area municipal officials are taking steps to help those in need. Some have special funds already dedicated to helping the needy with heating assistance, and others are considering such funds.
As the prices of oil, natural gas and electricity rise, some residents are turning to alternative energy sources to save money.
Ann E. Carbonneau, co-owner of The Stove Place in Shrewsbury, said her business is booming.
"This is the busiest summer we've had in 32 years," she said. "Pellet stoves and pellet inserts are popular because of ease of operation, but wood stoves are also selling."
The store has started a waiting list for some pellet stoves, but they might not arrive until next year, she said.
"The manufacturers simply can't keep up with demand," she said.
Heating a 2,000-square-foot home requires about three to four tons of pellets per winter. "The price of pellets has fluctuated, and is up from $295 per ton last year to (between) $310 to $375 this year, so far," Ms. Carbonneau said.
The price of firewood is also up, costing as much as $350 per cord, as are the prices of oil, natural gas, propane and electricity.
The Donahue Institute released a report this month detailing the potential impact of rising fuel costs on Massachusetts this winter.
"We will all pay more for heat this winter, but a disproportionate burden falls on the elderly," Mr. Goodman said.
The institute report warned that many residents will resort to using "risky heat sources" such as "portable space heaters, kitchen stoves and fireplaces" to heat their homes, increasing the likelihood of carbon monoxide poisoning, burns and house fires.
The report also found that low-income seniors are far more likely to have "very low food security" in winter months, when they spend 43 percent less on food so they can pay their heating bills, making programs such as Meals on Wheels urgently needed.
Heating oil was selling for $4.02 per gallon Aug. 19, up from $2.55 at the same time last year, according to the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources. The average New England household that heats with oil requires approximately 800 gallons per year, according to the Massachusetts Oilheat Council.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration this month forecast residential heating oil would cost an average $4.34 per gallon, compared with $3.31 last year, a 31 percent increase.
Residential natural gas prices are projected to average $15.58 per thousand cubic feet this winter, up 22 percent from last year, according to the EIA. Average U.S. residential electricity prices are expected to jump 5 percent in 2008, the agency said.
Mr. Goodman said that one problem is that, in an emergency situation, there are certain protections in place for those who heat with "public utilities" such as natural gas or electricity, but not for those who heat with oil, which is not a public utility.
"State law prevents gas and electric utilities from shutting off gas or electric heat during the winter months. There is no such protection for oil customers. If they don't pay, they don't get deliveries," Mr. Goodman said.
He said he was not suggesting that private oil companies be regulated, but that the government step in and provide emergency assistance when needed. "Someone's got to buy the oil. There are no easy answers."
Across Massachusetts, nonprofit executives and local officials are reminding residents about some possible assistance options.
The 23-year-old Massachusetts Good Neighbor Fund, which seeks donations through inserts in natural gas and electric utility bills, helped 2,975 Massachusetts families pay fuel bills between December and July. The 2008-2009 campaign will start in December, according to fund spokesperson David L. Hughes.
He said the 2007-2008 campaign goal was $600,000, but that $935,005 was raised, thanks to the generosity of Massachusetts donors and a $200,000 gift from Excelerate Energy LLC of The Woodlands, Texas.
The fund, administered by The Salvation Army, provides maximum assistance of $275 per household per heating season.
"We realize this isn't much, with costs where they are. The amount may go up this year. We want to help anyone in need to pay heating fuel costs, whether it is for gas, electric, oil, propane, wood or pellets," Mr. Hughes said.
Auburn has the Community Assistance Fund, which was founded during the 1970s oil crisis to help pay for heating fuel for the needy. An annual Fuel Fund Golf Tournament at the Pakachoag Golf Course, together with donations, have kept the fund going for more than 30 years, according to Town Clerk Ellen C. Gaboury, fund administrator.
She said in past years, the fund has been used to help families in emergencies of many kinds, but for the past two years, the fund has been used only for fuel assistance.
"We have $4,000 in the fund right now. Last year, we were able to help 36 families. The year before that, we helped 58 families," she said. This year, 20 families are already on the waiting list for fuel assistance.
"People are in a panic over the price of oil," she said. "I'd love to be able to help everybody, but I simply don't have the money, with the cost of fuel so high," Ms. Gaboury said.
Shrewsbury has formed the Home Heating Working Group to aid those in need.
Upton created the Fuel Assistance Program, and Joseph P. Kennedy II's Citizens Energy Program, known by its telephone number, 1-877-JOE-4-OIL, will be available to provide 100 gallons of oil per qualifying household starting in December.
Jennie L. Caissie, Oxford's selectmen chairwoman, is working on establishing a local task force to aid the needy in that town.
"We're supposed to take care of our people. We need to find resources to keep our people warm this winter. We have to think outside the box and consider making loans available or seeking donations. When your family's freezing, you don't want bureaucratic red tape," she said.
She said that while some families can make cuts elsewhere to pay for fuel, others will have to cut essentials, such as food or medicine, to pay for heat. "The average homeowner used to pay $2,500 a year on oil. Double that and where can they go? What will the elderly on a fixed income or the working poor do?"
Several banks have also stepped up to support or establish emergency funds.
The UniBank Fuel Assistance Fund and Southbridge Savings Bank Elder Fuel Assistance Program provide emergency help with heating, and Millbury Savings Bank donated $25,000 to the Community Energy Assistance Program.
Federal help is also available through the Worcester Community Action Council, a federally mandated agency that administers the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program in Southern Worcester County.
Last year, Massachusetts received $115 million in federal home heating assistance for 140,000 low-income families, with hopes of receiving $165 million this year.
To qualify for LIHEAP funds, a family of four must have an income no greater than $41,300, which is twice the poverty level. A one-person household's maximum gross income is $20,800, including Medicare benefits, according to Mark Sanborn, energy director for the council.
The council's fuel assistance program runs from Nov. 1 through the end of April, according to Mr. Sanborn.
"We started doing recertification on July 14. Last year, we had over 11,000 applications. Just over 10,000 qualified for assistance. We expect more applications this year," he said.
Those who qualify include senior and low-income families and individuals. He said applications and information will be available for those in need at area senior centers through a new outreach program.
"We try to set it up so that those on the lowest end of the scale get at least 100 gallons of oil," Mr. Sanborn said.
Massachusetts fuel use by region
Natural gas / Electricity / Fuel oil, kerosene / LP gas, coal, wood and solar and other
Central 32% 14.4% 47.6% 6%
Boston metropolitan 49.7% 14.7% 32.8% 2.8%
Pioneer Valley 7.6% 15.5% 39% 7.9%
Berkshires 34% 10% 46.3% 9.7%
Cape and Islands 48.2% 11% 33.4% 7.4%
Northeast 54.5% 10.6% 31.8% 3.1%
Southeast 48.6% 8.9% 37.6% 4.9%
All Massachusetts 46% 13% 36% 5%
Source: UMass Donahue Institute, U.S Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2005-2006
T&G Staff/DON LANDGREN JR.
CUTLINE: (1) William Gillmeister, right, of Brookfield looks at a wood stove as crowds of people wait to talk to a salesman at The Stove Place in Shrewsbury. (2) A row of wood stoves on display at The Stove Place in Shrewsbury.
PHOTOG: T&G Photos/PAUL KAPTEYN
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Aug 24, 2008|
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