As the pandemic continues and unemployment remains high, the state is encouraging Michigan residents who are unable to pay their energy bills to seek help before they receive a shutoff notice or are almost out of propane or fuel oil, especially as winter approaches.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

The state offers three programs to help people with utility assistance. The cap on one of them, the Michigan Energy Assistance Program, was raised from $2,000 to $3,000 per household but will go back down after Sept. 30.

The Michigan Public Service Commission and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said customers should first contact their energy provider or propane supplier for payment options or seek help from state assistance programs. DTE and Consumers offer payment plans and can connect people to additional assistance. Call DTE at 800-477-4747 and Consumers Energy at 800-477-5050 for options.

Here’s how the state’s programs work.

State Emergency Relief Program

The State Emergency Relief program helps low-income households pay part of their heating or electric bills and keep utilities in service or restore them. This program is available year round but due to the pandemic there have been several changes to the program:

Here are some of those changes and deadlines, according to a news release:

  • Customers no longer have to go through a phone interview to apply. They can apply online at www.michigan.gov/mibridges or fill out a paper application, which can be find online at michigan.gov/mdhhs or at local Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offices.
  • The state has suspended “one-time energy assists” meaning that customers can get more assistance if they have not reached their energy caps. These caps were increased from $1,200 to $1,500 for deliverable fuel customers and from $850 to $1,150 for customers usingnatural gas, electricity and wood. A family of five is eligible for the same amount of assistance as a family of two. This $300 increase is in effect until Sept. 30.
  • Households can have up to $15,000 in assets and still remain eligible for the program.
  • Minimum payments toward energy services based on a household’s size have been eliminated. MDHHS previously required that households make minimum payments in order to be eligible. Because of COVID-19, the minimum payment amount is now $0.

To apply go to MI Bridges at michigan.gov/mibridges. If you need help with the application or have questions, call 211 or go to mi211.org.

To be eligible, a household must not have income exceeding 150% of the federal poverty level. Energy services must be in “past-due or shut-off status.” For those who heat their homes with deliverable fuel, their tank must be at or below 25% its capacity.

These requirements have not changed as a result of COVID-19, however MDHHS excludes the federal pandemic unemployment income when determining income eligibility, said Bob Wheaton, a spokesperson for MDHHS.

Michigan Energy Assistance Program

Households that qualify for State Emergency Relief program can also apply for a different state program called the Michigan Energy Assistance Program and receive additional assistance until the end of next month.

The program provides supplemental bill payment assistance and “self-sufficiency services,” like energy needs assessments and waterproofing, for low-income residents statewide.

MEAP funding increased from $2,000 to $3,000 per household but will go back down after Sept. 30. Households can get the additional money if they have not reached the $3,000 cap yet.

For more information and help getting this money, customers can contact a MEAP provider. In Southeast Michigan these providers are: Society of St. Vincent de Paul of the Archdiocese of Detroit, The Heat and Warmth Fund, the Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Division and United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Connect with a provider during your MI Bridges SER application process by calling 211 or going to mi211.org.

Home Heating Credit

The Home Heating Credit program helps eligible homeowners and renters receive a credit to pay winter heating bills. The application deadline is Sept. 30.

The Michigan Department of Treasury determines eligibility based on income, exemptions and heating costs. Households do not have to file a Michigan tax return to apply for this program.

The average homestead heating credit issued is $195. For those who receive heating from DTE Energy, Consumers Energy or SEMCO Energy Gas, the credit may be sent directly to the provider.

Request the form from the Michigan Department of Treasury at 517-636-4486, online at michigan.gov/Treasury and search “home heating credit” or visit a local MDHHS office. The treasury department receives these claims.

What to expect from utility companies

Shut off protections implemented by DTE Energy and Consumers Energy have already expired or may end soon.

DTE Energy’s voluntary moratorium on utility shutoffs for low-income residents and seniors ended July 29, after four months. Nonpayment disconnects have since resumed for commercial and residential customers.

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DTE says it is providing one-time balance reductions for people who don’t qualify for debt forgiveness and is enrolling customers in energy efficiency programs to lower bills and offering custom payment plans.

Consumers Energy shutoff protections began March 16. Although these protections were extended due to the hot weather until further notice, “residential customers are still eligible for shutoff for nonpayment,” said Katie Carey, director of media relations, for Consumers via email last week.

“We have not shut off a residential customer since the start of COVID-19. Now that summer is concluding, we have plans to resume the process, with a minimum of three but up to five customer notifications, while also looking at external factors such as weather, COVID and availability of additional federal assistance dollars.”

How to get help

  • Apply for State Emergency Relief Program and Michigan Energy Assistance Program online through MI Bridges at www.michigan.gov/mibridges. If you need help applying or navigating the application process, call 211 and ask for your local MEAP provider.
  • For more information on the Home Heating Credit program call 517-636-4486  or go to michigan.gov/Treasury.
  • Call DTE at 800-477-4747 to discuss setting up a Personalized Service Protection plan. For more information, go to dteenergy.com/covid19.
  • Residential customers of Consumers Energy can call 800-477-5050 or go to ConsumersEnergy.com/coronavirus for payment plan options.

MEAP Providers in Southeast Michigan

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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