Denise and David Rayner clear the snow off their propane tank. 'You can only gauge how much you're using by how often they fill it,' Denise said. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
Carmina Smith, a 35-year-old Detroit mother of two, can’t pay her heating bill and spends most nights warming her home with a couple of space heaters.
She barely makes the rent each month and applied for emergency utility assistance in the past but was denied. Because of her non-traditional heating methods, she said she fears for the safety of her and her daughters, ages 17 and 11.
“I’m struggling day by day trying to make it happen for me and my babies,” she said. “I don’t want this house and my babies to burn up, so I keep them far away from everything. I’ve got them for my safety because this is the only source of heat I have.”
Smith is among growing numbers of Metro Detroiters who are struggling with rising heating costs because of a colder-than-expected winter. Natural gas prices are at an 11-year low, but heating bills are up because consumption has skyrocketed, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission. The metropolitan region is in the midst of its coldest January since the 1970s, according to the National Weather Service.
Jackson-based Consumers Energy, which serves about 600,000 customers in Metro Detroit, said demand has jumped 26 percent since Jan. 1, compared to the same time last year. Consumers said the average customer bill — which varies by individual households — is up about $11 this month, to $146.
“Clearly, colder weather is driving up usage,” said Consumers spokesman Dan Bishop. “Bills will be higher.”
Detroit-based DTE, which serves 700,000 customers in Metro Detroit, said demand is up 27 percent this winter. The average DTE customer will pay an estimated $420 for heating — November through January — up about 13 percent from the same months last year.
A statewide propane shortage hasn’t helped matters, pushing costs up for the 9 percent of Michiganians who rely on propane to heat their homes.
Michigan utilities have attempted to help low-income families who can’t afford their heating bills, and organizations such as the Michigan Department of Human Services and THAW, The Heating and Warmth Fund, are responding to growing demand for help.
As the season began, Consumers predicted customers would save about $50 on their heating bills this year, but the frigid weather has eliminated any savings for customers, he said.
Assistance, not shutoffs
Utilities and social service organizations said they’re doing everything they can to make sure no one’s heat is turned off this winter because they can’t pay afford to pay their bills.
Consumers Energy temporarily suspends its normal shutoff practices during extreme weather, Bishop said. Mark Stiers, president and COO of DTE, said the utility tries to work with everyone who is having trouble paying.
“We’re trying to move from a model of shutoffs to a model whereby we’re getting the assistance to those in need,” Stiers said. “I’m sure we’ve shut people off in the context of theft, but what we’re trying to do is avoid that situation (for those who can’t pay).”
DTE recently donated $4 million to THAW and $1 million to the Michigan Community Action Agency Association, which helps low-income families. Stiers said 28,000 customers are part of a DTE self-sufficiency program, which offers affordable rates for those in need. Consumers has a similar assistance program.
Dave Akerly, director of communications for the Michigan Department of Human Services, said the organization receives 25,000 cases for emergency relief a year. Many of those are energy related. He said it’s too soon to see how many people are affected by high prices this winter.
“We’re trying to head off issues with our clients this year,” he said. “Now when you’ve got a past-due notice and appear to be headed toward shutoff you can apply at that point so you don’t get to the shutoff point.”
Susan Sherer, CEO of THAW, said the assistance programs being offered by the utilities are helping, but there are tens of thousands of families in Metro Detroit that still need help.
“When you’re on a limited income and you are in a cold snap and you are used to a certain payment schedule, when there is a swing in temperatures you aren’t prepared for that,” Sherer said.
She said the organization lost about $100 million in energy grants and loans this year from the federal government. At the same time, the state has imposed new restrictions on energy assistance, making it harder for some lower-income residents to receive aid.
“The funds are going down, unemployment is going up, the weather is getting colder, so that’s a bit of a firestorm for us,” she said.
The state’s propane shortage has exacerbated the problem.
Propane supplies are at 43 percent of what they were at this time last year, the Public Service Commission said in a statement.
Shortages hit U.P. hardest
The Upper Peninsula of the state has been hit the hardest with the shortages, but it is also spreading into the Lower Peninsula, said John Quackenbush, commission chairman.
Last week, the commission warned residents that the propane shortage would worsen with a Wisconsin supplier shutting down for maintenance. The facility should remain closed until the end of the month.
That’s not good news for Denise Rayner and her husband David, who rely on propane to heat their Holly home. They filled their tank a week ago and hope it lasts.
“With the cold weather, we were wondering and just about to go out and check the tank because it had been a long time since they’d come to fill it,” she said. “You can only gauge how much you’re using by how often they fill it.”
Typically, the Rayners spend more than $300 a month on the propane, which they use year-round to run their dryer and water heater.
Sandy and Scott Eddy bought a home in an area of Howell that doesn’t have a gas line, so they rely on propane, too. Their previous house in Brighton had natural gas, so they weren’t prepared for the heating costs at their new home.
The couple recently got their tank half filled up for $1,300, and they’re concerned about being able to afford heating costs the rest of the winter.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” Sandy Eddy said. “I’m just hoping every day it comes down, but it doesn’t look like it will.”
■WWJ Newsradio 950 and THAW are partnering for the annual Winter Survival Radiothon Feb 7. Tune in to WWJ (950) between 5 a.m. - 7 p.m., to help raise funds for THAW.
■The stars of Tru TV’s “Hardcore Pawn” will host their second annual Hardcore Thaw charity event Feb. 8. Portions of everything bought and sold will benefit THAW.
■Donate online at www.thawfund.org/support-our-work/.