“I’m struggling”: Soaring heating bills stress Minnesotans

By: - February 21, 2022 7:41 am

Bebe Brandt poses for a portrait outside of her Minneapolis home Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

Bebe Brandt turned off the heat, piled on blankets and limited stove use to one day a week this winter in hopes of containing her ballooning heating bill.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Brandt, a single mom of two in Minneapolis, said her past-due balance swelled to $400.

Energy assistance resources

To learn more about energy assistance program eligibility and how to apply, visit Minnesota’s energy assistance program guide here, or call the Minnesota Department of Commerce for help at 1-800-657-3710.

People who apply for energy assistance may also qualify for the state’s weatherization program, which provides free home assessments of potential energy efficiency improvements like insulation and furnace repairs. 

Your utility company may also offer affordability programs. The Citizens Utility Board has a list of those programs here.

Brandt’s shifts at a mailing company keep getting cut as the pandemic shipping craze slows, so her hopes for paying it off are pinned on her recent application for state energy assistance — otherwise, she has no idea where she’ll get the money.

“I’m struggling, to be honest. It’s got me depressed,” Brandt said. “I’m praying, praying, praying, because every day that bill is on my mind.”

Brandt isn’t alone. Skyrocketing natural gas prices and brutally cold temperatures have sent Minnesotans’ utility bills soaring, making it difficult for many to keep up — especially those already facing financial stress due to the pandemic. More than 246,000 Minnesotans were behind on their CenterPoint Energy and Xcel Energy bills last month, or roughly 11% of the companies’ customers.

Minnesotans with unpaid bills won’t see their service interrupted for now, since the state’s “cold weather rule” prohibits utility companies from shutting off residents’ electricity or gas during the most frigid months of the year. But advocates worry about what will happen after April 30, when the rule is no longer in effect.

“Even the lowest-income people (who qualify for the most assistance) are going to be facing shutoff, potentially, in the next couple of months,” said Annie Levenson-Falk, director of the nonprofit Citizens Utility Board.

Levenson-Falk said advocates have been working to raise awareness of Minnesota’s energy assistance program, which helps homeowners and renters making up to 60% of the statewide median household income pay for current and past-due utility bills.

The annual income limit is $67,765 for a four-person household. Eligible Minnesotans can get up to $1,600 for current energy bills and $1,200 for past-due bills. 

Here’s more on why natural gas is so expensive and how it’s affecting Minnesotans, in three charts.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.