Big utility bills send people looking for help keeping heat, lights on

When Cheryl and Paul Ricks opened the December Xcel Energy bill for their mobile home in Clifton, they were panicked by the $1,080 charge. Lee LeFear’s reaction to his $872 bill, 245 miles away in Denver, was much the same.

“I thought I was keeping up,” LeFear said. “There was no way I could pay that. It’s a hell of a thing to get two weeks before Christmas.”

LeFear, 66, is on Social Security disability and health problems have sidelined the Rickses, both 57, from working. The utility bills were beyond their means to pay, sending them to social service agencies for help.

The two households are part of an unprecedented wave of people scrambling for assistance with utility bills, which have soared with rising natural gas prices and a series of electricity and gas rate increases by Xcel Energy, the state’s main utility provider with more than 1.5 million customers.

The big bills come as inflation is pushing up the cost of living and as sources of aid, such as funds for rental, food and job loss assistance under initiatives such as the federal American Rescue Plan, dry up. 

And as bad December bills have been, aid agencies fear January bills, boosted even more by the arctic cold blanketing the Front Range, could be even worse.

“You are talking about people living on the margins, living dollar to dollar,” said Kristen Baluyot, the Salvation Army Metro Denver director of social services. “Any change in expense can dramatically change their housing stability and their need for assistance.”

Ryan Breedlove has such a story. The single parent of three girls, Breedlove, 37, is a gig worker doing merchandising, warehousing and cleaning. A couple of months ago her car needed a new water pump and other repairs totaling $1,400 — a tab she couldn’t afford.

“That has made it difficult to get to jobs and I’ve had to pay extra to get my daughter to and from school,” Breedlove said. Rent on her Arvada townhouse also rose by about $100 a month.

Then came the December Xcel Energy bill of $1,200, reflecting two months usage. Breedlove took her bill to Community Table, an Arvada-based nonprofit aid organization participating in a statewide utility assistance program.

Community Table was able to cover the bill. “I don’t know what I would do without them,” Breedlove said.

Her tale is just one of many this December and the numbers tell the tale.

The two main sources of utility bill relief are the state’s Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP, and nonprofit Energy Outreach Colorado, or EOC.

Each offers a one-time payment to help with utility bills.

The federally funded LEAP program began accepting applications Oct. 1, and in the first 12 weeks had 69,000 requests for help with heating bills. To be eligible a household can earn up to 60% of the state median income — $34,560 for an individual and $66,468 for a family of four.

So far, the program has approved 43,000 applications. In the 2021-22 heating season LEAP helped a total of 83,000 households. About 35% of the grants go to households in the Denver metro area.

“This marks the most we have seen in recent years and with increasing energy costs our dollars have less impact,” said Theresa Kullen, LEAP manager. The program is expecting to spend about $65 million for the heating season.

EOC, through a mix of government, corporate and foundation funding, helped 21,700 households with gas and electric bills in 2021. Since October, the organization has fielded 113,000 calls for help.

“What people are telling us is that their utility bills have doubled in many cases,” said Denise Stepto, EOC’s chief communications officer. “They are completely shocked and, in many cases, unable to afford it.”

EOC distributes its aid through local partner social service agencies and groups, such as Community Table and the Salvation Army. “We are spending a lot of EOC money,” Baluyot said.“We are seeing a significant jump, crazy significant.”

By mid-December the Salvation Army had distributed $599,000 in utility aid, almost as much as it did all of last year.

It’s not consumption making bills bigger

The fact is that even if a family’s energy consumption isn’t going up, what Xcel Energy is charging them for gas and electricity has risen.

In the last year the Colorado PUC has approved six Xcel Energy electric and gas rate increases.

A main driver in the soaring bills has been the rise in the price of natural gas — a cost that gets passed directly on to consumers.

This year the spot price for natural gas doubled to as much as $8.81 for a million British thermal units before dropping to $5.45 a million BTUs in November, which still left it 25% higher than the start of the year.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has approved three rate increases this year to cover rising gas prices, the last one in September, just before the heating season began.

In June, the PUC also approved a temporary gas rate increase to cover $500 million in fuel costs during 2021’s Winter Storm Uri, which briefly spurred prices to as high as $190 a million BTUs.

On top of that, in October the PUC granted Xcel Energy a $64.2 million increase in the base natural gas rates, and last April, the utility commission also approved a $182 million hike in electricity rates.

“This is not sustainable for many people,” Stepto said. 

The result is that even a couple, like LeFear and his wife, who are careful about their electricity use, cannot avoid higher bills.

“I can’t figure it out. We haven’t touched the thermostat, I have all new appliances, new furnace, new water heater, everything is efficient,” LeFear said.

The cost of moving to renewable energy adds up

Much of the rate increases are being spurred by the goal of shifting the company to 80% renewable generation by 2030 in Colorado and assuring the reliability of the electric grid and natural gas pipeline system.

“We understand customers are concerned with the rising cost of energy,” Michelle Aguayo, a company spokeswoman, said in an email. “We want them to know we work hard to be good stewards of their money and are prudent in making investments that continue to provide a safe and reliable grid while leading the clean energy transition.”

All the investments, in projects such as wind farms, solar installations, battery storage and a new regional grid, will have “long-lasting benefits for all our customers,” Aguayo said.

Xcel Energy also has bill payment aid plans, financed by a charge on customer bills, including gas and electricity affordability programs where customers who qualify for LEAP can receive a bill credit or partial forgiveness of past-due balances.

Between last December and Nov. 30 of this year, Xcel Energy customers donated $700,000 for energy assistance, and through monthly energy assistance charges on bills the utility has provided $16 million to EOC.

Cheryl Ricks looking over her $1,080 Xcel bill at Grand Valley Catholic Outreach in Grand Junction. She missed a few payments in the summer, but said by October, she owed just $114. The relief agency was able to help. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, the jump in bills has been overwhelming for the Rickses and many others. Paul Ricks, has been mostly unable to work as handyman because of heart problems and a fall earlier this year also kept Cheryl out of work. She has a scar across her forehead and a bad back to show for it.

The couple managed to outfit their 1978 mobile home in Clifton with new appliances last year in the hopes of being more energy-efficient and cutting their bills. “Maybe it’s our poor windows?” Cheryl said.

Cheryl Ricks took her bill to Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, another EOC partner. People have been lining up at the door in the morning with their utility bills, Sister Karen Bland, the center’s director, said.

When Ricks was told that her entire bill could be covered, it left her in tears. “These are tears of joy,” she said. “I didn’t expect to get help with the whole thing.” She left with a smile and a box of donated food.

The kinds of people coming through Grand Valley’s doors this season are different from many of those the center has helped in the past, according to Scott Montgomery, the organization’s financial director.

“Instead of seeing people mired in generational poverty, the agency is now seeing people who are accustomed to paying their bills regularly,” Montgomery said. “They were staying on top of bills by carefully managing fixed incomes, but sudden doubling and tripling of utility bills and big hikes in rent pushed them into needing help. The numbers of disabled and senior citizens we are starting to see is disturbing to us.”

LeFear, 66, is one of those numbers. The Air Force veteran and retired window glass installer has lived in his townhouse in Denver’s Washington Virginia Vale neighborhood for 14 years and has always paid his Xcel Energy bill.

Last March — with a zero balance — LeFear said he moved to budget billing, where Xcel Energy calculates a fixed monthly charge based on a household’s historic usage, seasonal variations and the prevailing rates.

“The bill was $279 a month and I never missed a payment,” LeFear said, adding that he made sure to keep the thermostat low during the colder months and higher during the summer.

A review of LeFear’s bills, however, showed with each month the fixed charge didn’t quite cover the usage, first by a little bit and then growing, until in December his bill tallied $872.

Stunned, LeFear called the Senior Assistance Center, a Denver nonprofit that is also an EOC partner. “I got six calls in one day,” said Karen Black, the center’s executive director. “This is really upsetting to people living on a pension or Social Security. They can get behind really quickly.”

Black said that Xcel Energy works with the center and its clients to deal with the bills and keep the lights and heat on, even after they receive shut-off notices. “Xcel people are very kind and respectful,” she said.

There are limits, however. “If the customer is struggling for a long time and has multiple disconnect notices and not working on a payment plan, they lose patience,” said Alex Romberg, the Denver Inner City Parish liaison to EOC.

The senior center will cover LeFear’s December bill and “help him get caught up,” Black said. If there are no surprises, LeFear said he hopes he will be able to stay on top of his bills going forward.

“The problem is the bill just keeps going up and up, but my money does not keep going up,” he said.

Lee LeFear went on Xcel Energy’s budget billing plan to smooth out the highs and lows of his utility costs. But the $279 per month that was set, gradually stopped covering the cost to heat and light his townhome. His bill was almost $900 in December, so he asked for help. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Xcel is looking for another electric rate increase

Xcel Energy has already filed a request for another $312.2 million electric rate increase and is seeking to recover $123 million from customers for coal-delivery shortfalls and high natural gas prices.

While EOC, LEAP and the local social service agencies are helping seniors and families manage their December bills with the one-time payments, they are worrying about what will happen in January.

“What we expect is that the January bill is going to be worse,” EOC’s Stepto said. “If you can’t pay December and then comes January you can get a cascading effect where you can’t afford anything. … It is kind of scary.”

Inflation remains another concern. “The increased costs of everything at this point is what is driving folks,” LEAP’s Kullen said. “While they may have been able to get by in the past, now so many folks are in positions that they are having to ask for help from many avenues.”

Last year, Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, for example, helped 700 people with a range of services, this year it is up to 1,700.

Bland said some of the people coming in for help seem to have been “scared into immobility” by the vastly higher gas and electricity bills they received this month. “They just don’t know what to do.”

Colorado Sun reporters Elliott Wenzler and Tatiana Flowers contributed to this story.

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