Warmer weather is on the way in Texas, which means residents will be cranking up the A/C to stay cool. Running your air conditioning unit more often means you’re using more energy, of course, which can mean an increase in your electricity bill during summer months.
While for most Texans those increases are an acceptable price to pay for staying comfortably chill during the steamy Texas summer, many low-income residents might struggle fitting higher electricity costs into their budget.
Until recently, there was a state-sponsored program that offered discounts to qualified households, but funding for this benefit fund has been depleted. Thankfully, however, a few residential energy providers and government groups are stepping up to provide low-income households with new and re-energized options for keeping their cool this summer.
For years, the Texas Public Utility Commission ran a program called Lite-up Texas that offered discounts on utility bills for families that meet low income requirements. It was in 1999 that the Texas Legislature created Lite-up Texas. Paid for by electric ratepayers across the state, this program helped Texans who might be struggling to pay utility bills in the newly deregulated electricity markets.
The program provided hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to approximately 700,000 low-income households. However, in 2015, lawmakers voted to end the subsidy. On August 31, 2016, the last of the remaining funds were distributed and Lite-up Texas came to a close. While there are still a few ancillary benefits of the rate reduction program, late fee waivers and deposit installments, and reduction in collection recovery fees that will continue through this summer, retail energy providers are stepping up to support the Texas communities that need a hand.
Help from Retail Electric Providers
In a bold effort to give low-income households a helping hand, some Retail Electric Providers (REPs) have created innovative ways to make it easier for families to run their A/C and pay their bill.
A good example is Direct Energy’s Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. The idea is this: Direct Energy customers who choose to help out a “neighbor” can check the “Bill Assistance” box on their monthly bill and enter the amount they would like to contribute. It’s easy to make the contribution with either a check or online payment, and every bit helps. Plus, Direct Energy and affiliates contribute over $600,000 annually of its own funding to the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. Those funds are then used to help customers who may be struggling to pay for heating, cooling and other electricity needs.
“We hear from customers daily who are truly grateful that they are able to get assistance during their times of need,” says Gerald Reuter, Director of Credit and Debt Strategy at Direct Energy. “We have also seen these same individuals return the favor and donate when their financial picture is healthier.”
Direct Energy goes the extra mile to keep customers up to date on their energy usage, breaking down actual costs by appliance with their Direct Your Energy tool, and offering simple online energy audits to customers. Once they save on electricity, customers are often encouraged to use their savings to make a donation to the neighbor-to-neighbor program.
And finally, there are some additional savings perks. Direct Energy participates in the Efficiency Connection program in partnership with select Texas utilities, offering up to 40% savings on LED bulbs, and their Refer-A-Friend program, offering a $50 bill credit for every friend customers refer that become a customer themselves (oh, that new customer gets a $50 bill credit, too).
Another Texas Electricity company that stands out is First Choice Power. They offer a prepaid electricity plan for Texas customers with no deposit and no credit check called Power-to-Go. Customers can pay for their Texas electricity as they go, and get text message notifications telling them how much money they spent on their electricity over the previous 24 hours and when it’s time to refill their account. The idea being that customers can manage their payments on their terms and in line with their budgetary needs.
And then there’s Deposit Freedom. When First Choice Power pre-paid electricity customers have been in good standing for 60-days, they have the option to enroll in a fixed-rate energy plan without having to pay a deposit. These customers have exhibited newly improved budgeting and bill payment habits that they can apply to their postpaid account, which can improve their TEC score, which is used to determine if a deposit is required during future postpaid electricity enrollments.
Lowering Costs through Increasing Efficiency
REPs aren’t the only ones working to provide assistance for low-income energy consumers. It’s often the case that these families live in homes that are not the most energy efficient. Air leaks around windows, older appliances and inadequate insulation can all be contributing to higher-than-necessary utility bills.
Two programs are addressing those issues with education, helping homeowners discover more about using less energy.
The Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program (CEAP) is designed to help low-income households not only meet their immediate energy needs, but control future costs by learning to reduce demand. Not only will it pay up to four of the home’s highest utility bills annually, CEAP representatives will discuss ways to use less energy both through easy home improvements as well as lifestyle changes.
Another plan to help low-income residents is the Weatherization Assistance Program. Offered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, it allows qualifying households to request a free energy audit.
Experts explore the home, looking for things that may be causing the owners to pay more in energy costs. After the audit, the family can apply for financial and installation assistance with things like caulking windows, beefing up insulation or installing storm windows.
Texans Helping Texans
With efforts like these from Direct Energy and First Choice Power, the government and communities, Texans are ensuring that even those who have financial challenges can have the power to enjoy a comfortable, energy-efficient home.