With high prices across the board, more Utahns may turn to the state’s Home Energy Assistance Target program for help to keep their air conditioning on this summer.

The program — which provides year-round energy assistance — is now accepting applications for cooling benefits, which run through September. High oil and gas prices have translated to increasing energy costs for households, according to a Department of Workforce Services spokesperson.

“We anticipate that more households will seek assistance, but we are finding that people may be using their tax returns or other stimulus funds to pay their energy bills instead of utilizing this program,” the department’s Sarah Nielson told the Deseret News. “We hope to get the word out so families can save money for other things and let our program help pay for their energy costs.”

HEAT funding is available to qualifying Utah households whose income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty line, which is around $41,625 a year for a family of four. Between October and February, HEAT has already provided benefits to about 16,000 households.

Carrie Smith is one of those Utahns. She retired from home health five years ago after back pain made it impossible to do the physical labor required. Now, the Washington City resident relies on HEAT benefits to help stretch her meager social security checks.

In a word, Smith described the program as “amazing.”

Carrie Smith writes notes on Easter cards at her home in Washington on Thursday, April 14, 2022. She relies on Utah’s energy assistance program to help pay her home energy bills. | Ravell Call, for the Deseret News

“I still have to watch my money, but if I didn’t have the HEAT program — which I didn’t have before, I was penny to penny,” she said. “A lot of people, especially the elderly, live check to check and things like that. Now, I’ve got a little bit extra ... I don’t have to scrimp and scrimp and scrimp like I did before. So it’s truly — I’ve gotta say that word again — amazing.”

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The summer heat is most expensive to mitigate, Smith said, especially given the climate in southern Utah. While the program isn’t designed to cover all energy costs, “every bit helps,” she said.

“I’ve heard people go in there and say, ‘Is this all I get?’ And I go, ‘Oh my heck, be grateful for anything you get that helps you,’” Smith said.

According to Nielson, the benefits max out at $850 annually, although there are additional benefits for households with someone over the age of 60, someone with disabilities or a child under the age of 6. HEAT also has a crisis program to help pay the cost of reconnecting services if they are shut off.

Recently, Smith has been able to work a few hours a week cleaning at a military recruitment office in the area. The work is easy, she said, but she’s unable to put in more than 10 hours each week thanks to her back pain.

Smith has occasionally considered returning to work full time in order to help make ends meet. She worries that if prices continue to rise, she’ll be unable to meet all her expenses even with HEAT’s help.

“I would just have to — like I did before — I’d have to go without and not have this, not have that,” she said. “There would have to be changes made.”

Carrie Smith gets food from the refrigerator at her home in Washington on Thursday, April 14, 2022. She relies on Utah’s energy assistance program to help pay her home energy bills. | Ravell Call, for the Deseret News

Heat, drought add to energy costs

Inflation isn’t the only thing driving up energy costs. In an annual cost adjustment, Rocky Mountain Power announced its plans for an average increase of 1.9% for Utah customers, scheduled to go into effect on May 1, 2022.

“Due to the severe drought and heat wave experienced by western North American in June and July 2021, actual power costs were much higher than the amount currently being collected through customer rates,” the utility said in a statement.

Singular events like last year’s polar vortex and heat wave can spur demand for energy, increasing its cost on the wholesale market, according to Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen. Drought, on the other hand, can reduce the availability of hydroelectric power, forcing utilities to turn to more costly forms of energy, he added.

“It’s not really an inflation story, but it certainly plays into the fact that the costs are going up,” Eskelsen said.

Still, inflationary prices could take a toll in the future. Rising costs for building materials and labor impact Rocky Mountain Power the same as other companies, but the process of having a price increase approved by utility regulators means customers may not see higher prices for up to 18 months, according to Eskelsen.

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