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Eblen Charities Receives LIEAP program donation

Blossman Technician Filling a Propane Tank

The offices at Eblen Charities in Asheville are filling up each day with people in search of help with their heating bills.

January was one of the coldest in recent memory, pushing up demand for electricity, natural gas and other heating sources.That will show up in higher heating costs across Western North Carolina.

“Colder weather in general increases customers’ energy use, and with that increased usage comes increased bills,” said Kristina Hill, spokeswoman for Duke Progress Energy.

Duke Energy Progress set a winter usage peak on Jan. 7. The demand for electricity broke a previous winter record set in January 2010.

PSNC Energy, which provides natural gas in the Asheville area, also reported record demand in January. Like Duke, Jan. 7 was a record day for PSNC.

The low temperature in the Asheville area that day was 1 below zero. The high only reached 20 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

In Buncombe County, about half the households rely on electricity for heat, according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey.

About 7,000 households in Buncombe County use propane, which has seen a big jump in price this winter.

The cold winter and a shortage of propane in the Midwest contributed to higher prices.

“In general, we’ve seen increases in all the prices this winter ... just because it’s been so cold,” said Sean Hill, economist with the U.S. Energy Information Association. “By far, the most dramatic increase has been in propane.”

Numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show the price of residential propane has risen by about 93 cents a gallon in North Carolina since the end of December.

Some states like North Carolina are sending gas to the Midwest, said John Jessup, executive director of the NC Propane Gas Association.

Jessup said heavy rain in the fall caused farmers in the Midwest to use more propane to dry crops. That coupled with the winter weather contributed to the shortage.

But Stuart Weidie, president of Blossman Gas, assured Western North Carolina residents, “there is more than an adequate supply of propane gas” in the area.

Getting help

Some residents are already seeing the effects of a colder winter. Audrey Smith, of Candler, said her latest electric bill jumped from $208 to $325. The 65-year-old uses electric heat in her mobile home.

Smith was one of those waiting at the Eblen office last week. She is retired and says her bill “will take half of my check, and I have other bills to pay.”

She was hoping Eblen could help.

Eblen executive director Bill Murdock said employees and volunteers worked overtime last week to serve those seeking help through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIEAP.

The federal program provides a one-time payment to help low-income families with utility bills. Eblen administers the low-income energy program for Buncombe County.

On Feb. 1, eligibility for the program expanded to include all low-income families, not just those with children or someone with a disability in the household.

Officials say this year the county is getting more money through the program. Buncombe is set to receive about $1.3 million in LIEAP funds this year, according to county officials.

In addition, the county received some money from Duke Progress to assist families with their utility bills.

Blossman Gas, Appliance and Service also donated $10,000 to Eblen for the LIEAP program. The company also donated money to Jackson, Swain, Avery and Haywood counties.

“We are hearing about broken heaters, job cut backs and paychecks that don’t cover heating costs that may be running unusually high at this time of year. We are hoping this contribution will help families who are struggling with the cost of heating this year,” Weidie said in a statement.

Murdock said Eblen has made an effort to go to apartment buildings and area businesses to try to reach those who can’t make it to the Eblen offices.

“We are visiting senior living places like Asheville Terrace Apartments,” Murdock said. “We are going to companies like Walmart and Mission Hospital, who may have folks working in support areas that would be eligible (for help).”

The federal money is available until March 31 or “until it runs out,” Murdock said.

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