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How winter impacts utility bills: Smart ways to save money

It is time to say goodbye to summer and welcome autumn, and soon winter will be upon us. It will be time to decorate for the holidays, enjoy family gatherings and stay inside to keep warm. Also, with all the holiday traditions and cold weather, higher gas and electric bills are to be expected. However, even with the colder weather and additional energy usage, there are many ways to help keep energy costs down.

The Winter Fuels Outlook projects that expenditures on energy are expected to be higher because of colder weather this year. This could mean higher bill costs for households, and as found in the Residential Consumption Survey (RECS) one in three U.S. households face challenges in paying their energy utility bills. Pacific Gas &Electric (PG&E) offers many programs like CARE, FERA, ESA and REACH to assist customers with their energy bills.

Marlene Murphy-Roach, director of the Income Qualified Programs at PG&E, said, "as a service provider, we want to ensure that we have the right programs to address the unique needs of disadvantaged communities as well as the lower income or the limited income customer segment."

PG&E has programs to help like CARE which provides up to a 20 percent discount on utility bills for lower income households. Even for customers "who are earning a little bit more than the income qualifications for CARE", can apply to another program, FERA. Murphy-Roach said that families of three or more could be approved for a discount of 12 percent on their utility bill through the FERA program.

FERA users will soon be able to gain an 18 percent discount on their electric usage due to new legislation which recently passed. Murphy-Roach said there are 1.4 million PG&E customers utilizing the CARE program, which represents approximately 89.5 percent of customers who qualify for the program.

“For the FERA program,” Murphy-Roach said, " [we believe] there are a lot more customers that qualify for the FERA program who are not taking advantage of it."

The RECS also found that households struggle to repair broken equipment in the home which negatively increases their financial difficulties. According to Murphy-Roach, customers, like these, can benefit from the Energy Savings Assistance Program (ESA) which seeks to weatherize their home. This increases the home’s ability to stay warm during the winter and cooler during the summer.

The ESA program is available to customers who are qualified for CARE, including homeowners and renters. Customers can get weatherization, such as weather stripping, attic insulation and replace older, inefficient appliances, such as refrigerators.

“In addition, customers who find themselves in tough situations…and experience a real hardship [where] they cannot pay their bill," she says, “have a one-time chance to apply for a program called REACH (Relief for Energy Assistance Through Community Help). Customers can use REACH once every 18 months to gain assistance through community help which pays for the customer’s utility bill during an emergency.”

Murphy-Roach says that living in Fresno and working closely with diverse communities has helped her see up close the range of needs throughout the community. She says that her interactions with the community have helped her “think about how to continue to look for better and different ways to serve diverse communities."

"We want to get to a place where a one hundred percent of all the customers that qualify for their programs are enrolled," said Murphy-Roach.

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