As heating costs are expected to spike this winter, local home heating assistance programs are bracing themselves for an increase in demand.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. households that primarily use heating oil are projected to spend 43% more — 59% more if the winter trends colder, and 30% more if the winter trends warmer. Just the 4% of the nation uses fuel oil as its primary heating source, but that’s not the case in Maine, where three-fifths of households depend on oil as the primary source.

The nearly-half of U.S. households that use natural gas as a primary source of heat will spend an average of 30% more than last winter. If the upcoming winter is 10% colder-than-average, that projection goes up to 50% more, if the winter is 10% warmer-than-average, the average expected cost increase drops to 22%.

The jump in cost, according to the agency, is due to current supply and demand patterns sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and price increases are also projected for those who heat with electricity, propane and heating oil.

Tedford Housing, a Brunswick-based emergency housing organization, has run a program called Warm Thy Neighbor since 2010. The program typically assists between 115 to 135 low-income households, through a total of $35,000 to $40,000 each year. The program covers Brunswick, Topsham, Harpswell, Bailey Island, Cundy’s Harbor, Lisbon Falls, Lisbon, Lisbon Center, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Durham.

Due to an anonymous donor match and the public’s generosity over the last several years, Tedford’s Director of Administration Danielle Triffitt said she does not anticipate any cutbacks or problems due to the rise in heating costs, although also doesn’t expect demand to shrink either.

“We’ll be prepared for more if that happens,” Triffitt said.

The program is designed to be a 100-gallon or equivalent emergency fuel stop for folks as part of the organization’s “prevention umbrella” to keep people housed, Triffitt said.

“Warm Thy Neighbor is 100% funded by community donations, and so all the money that we take in for Warm Thy Neighbor is specifically used for the purchase of fuel for the households in need,” said Triffitt. “It really is the community ‘Warming Thy Neighbors,’ which is great.”

Robbie Southall collects a donation from Lisa Kelley at the Freeport Community Services Freeze Out 2021. Courtesy of Freeport Community Services

In Freeport, Christine Lyons, the communications manager for Freeport Community Services, said that her organization is anticipating an uptick in heating assistance demand, although they too feel prepared due to prior years of community generosity.

“The cost of heating fuel has gone up 69% from this time last year,” said Lyons. “So, we anticipate there are going to be a lot of families who, facing that, may not be prepared for the hit of fueling up with heating products like K-1 or pellets or heating oil.”

For about 18 years, Freeport Community Services has raised money for The Carol Kaplan Fuel Fund which serves roughly 60 households through $300 allotments in Freeport and Pownal each year.

According to Lyons, the fund is designed to bridge the gap between the first cold nights of winter and the time when state heating assistance services become available. The organization usually raises about $3,000 through the annual Freeze Out campaign, although last year it was closer to $17,000.

“People should not have to choose between heating their homes and taking their medications or putting adequate food on their table,” said Lyons. “That is just not something that in our society and our community people should have to face.”

A 2019 study by Synapse Energy Economics prepared for the Maine Office of The Public Advocate showed that, on average, low-income households in Maine far exceed several definitions of energy poverty. At the time, the study showed that the average home energy burden for low-income households was 19%.

Statewide, as of Nov. 1, the price of heating oil in Maine was currently at a seven-year high, averaging out at $3.15 per gallon. Similar trends are also documented on the state’s website with both propane and kerosene prices.

In Bath, according to their website, Midcoast Maine Community Action also offers heating assistance to qualified individuals, as do municipalities. State programs, like the Maine Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, are also in place.

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