BETHEL — John Walker lives in a trailer with a roommate in West Bethel. With fuel prices expected to rise from last winter’s average, he has decided to switch from heating with oil to a pellet stove. “One ton of pellets equals 120 gallons of oil,” said Walker. “I paid $312. including delivery for pellets versus $549. for oil. I’m hoping to get away with just 50 gallons of diesel fuel for cold nights.

Switching to pellets will lessen my electric bill, too,” said Walker, who said ideally he’d have a many sources to choose from: a pellet stove, a heat pump, an oil furnace and a wood stove – although he acknowledged wood stoves are not recommended for trailers. He plans to wrap plastic around the bottom of his trailer and install pocket fans to keep some air moving so the pipes won’t freeze. “Maine ingenuity,” he said.

John Walker, in the porch of his West Bethel trailer with cat, Charlie, plans to improvise for better fuel savings this year. Rose Lincoln, Bethel Citizen  

With prices already on the rise this year – one gallon of heating oil in October of 2021 was $3.15 for Southwest/Central Maine and in late October of 2022 the price rose to $5.53 – low income families can expect some relief from the state. In March of this year, the governor announced an $800. one-time payment to families enrolled in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) if they have identified heating costs as part of their household expenses (and not included in their rent).

More recently, in July, the governor requested increased funding and expanded eligibility for the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Mills explained that last year’s relief money enabled families to have 1.5 tanks of heating oil, while this year with the anticipated spike in oil prices, families will only be able to fill half a tank with the federal assistance.

Maine’s Health and Human Services department and the governor acknowledge that “electrical prices have spiked along with gas and heating oil prices.” The department is providing support for all types of energy costs, including electric bills.

At maine.gov/energy/heating-fuel-prices, heating oil, kerosene and propane prices are tracked. In the Southwest/West-Central area of Maine, oil prices ranged from $5 – $5.90. Kerosene averaged $6.52 and propane was $3.55 per gallon as of October 24, 2022. The state also tracks average prices for firewood, wood pellets, natural gas, electricity for a heat pump water heater, and electricity.

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At Community Energy Company, based in Rumford, spokesperson, Peter Buotte said their customers are  able to lock in a rate in June, July and August, however the current price on 11/9/2022 for heating oil was $5.59. He said he does not have an outlook for where prices are going, “I wish I did. The industry has never seen anything close to this, not even in 2008 – massive fluctuations, uncertainty about pricing, and high prices.  I really wish I could give you happier news to write about like oil was at $1.99 a gallon.  The cheaper the better for us as a company as well.”

Asked about assisting people in need, he wrote, “We have limited funds through donations from customers and local organizations that we try to help needy patrons with.  We try not to advertise that too much so we don’t get overrun with calls for it because it goes fast.  Instead we work with our office staff and drivers to try to help people the best we can.  The local towns have general assistance funds that they try to help people with as well as local churches.  We also direct people to Maine Housing for help.”

Community Concepts, a community action agency and 501c (3) non-profit, takes applications over the phone for people needing help with the LIHEAP process. Income eligibility is based on the number of people living in the household.

A family of four with income under $59, 348. per year qualifies for aid. The agency offers emergency fuel assistance by calling 800-866-5588 (for those with less than a quarter of a tank).

Lisa McGee, manages the fuel assistance program, she said currently they are booking the first week in January for a regular fuel assistance appointment to fill out the application. Following that appointment, it’s an average of thirty days to receive assistance.

“We’re seeing a lot of new people, which is great. We reach out to people who have applied the year before. We call them the ‘young, old and cold.’ I think everybody is scared….It’s all that’s being talked about, is the fuel prices. The lack of product. Hopefully things will turn around. I think a lot of people are going to go back to alternative resources.”

People are proud. We hear it a lot. I don’t want to ask for help. I had an elderly woman who said ‘I’m ashamed to be here.’ Or the adage, ‘somebody else needs this more than I do’… It’s the Mainer mindset. We’re tough,” said McGee.

Warmer than expected weather this October and into November has offered a reprieve for Maine families. But this week, concern is heightened with the snow is flying and the temperatures dipping.

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