Gift cards help ease heat costs

MILWAUKEE - When Sandy Turk learned her 81-year-old mother set her thermostat at a chilly 65 degrees to save money this winter, she thought of the perfect gift - though it's about as much fun as a lump of coal in the stocking.

Turk, 57, bought three $50 gift certificates to help pay her mother's natural gas bill.

"It's up to 68 now. It's very pleasant," said her mother, Phyllis Perry, who lives alone on Social Security payments at the Prairie du Sac home her husband built in central Wisconsin.

Perry said she's careful to turn the thermostat down to 64 and close the drapes and blinds when she goes to sleep to keep the costly heat in. "You have to watch your pennies," she said.

Americans are doing everything they can to save money and keep each other warm this winter, when natural gas prices are expected to rise 38 percent, or $281 per household on average, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. American Electric Power Co., the nation's largest power generator, said on Tuesday that it is increasing its earnings forecast for 2005, citing higher wholesale sales of power and cold December temperatures.

Utilities across the northern states are expecting a rise in the purchase of energy gift certificates as givers get downright practical about the holidays.

"We anticipate that with the higher energy prices this heating season, we may see the most participants ever," said spokeswoman Karmen Wilhelm of Madison-based Alliant Energy Corp., which began its energy gift certificate program in 2001.

So far this year, Alliant has sold 612 certificates, totaling $48,870, compared to about 500 certificates a year for the last five years. The company serves some 400,000 natural gas customers in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

"They're a great little stocking stuffer, that's for sure," said Mike Donovan, spokesman for Orange and Rockland Utilities Inc., which has 123,000 gas customers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"Home heating costs for gas customers are up about 40 percent. That prompts the interest. People in New York are very conscious about that."

But heating help is not just for the hard-to-shop-for.

Social agencies say the need for heating for the poor has skyrocketed along with the price of fuel.

In Wisconsin, the number of people who applied for federal lump sum aid of about $300 under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, jumped from 98,989 in fiscal 2000 to 162,379 in fiscal 2005, said administrator Tim Bruer.

"What we're seeing is an increase in elderly and working poor that are coming in today, who because of their pride in the past haven't come forward, but who have no place to turn now," Bruer said.

But funding for the program has not kept pace with inflation or increased demand.

Federal disbursements from the fund last year were virtually unchanged at about $1.9 billion since its start 1981, even though the cost of living has doubled over the same period and eligible households have risen from 20 million to 35 million.

Nationally, about 5 million will receive assistance this winter, down from 7.1 million in 1981 despite the burgeoning need, lobbyists say.

"The benefit has not increased. The buying power is about half of what it used to be," said David Fox, spokesman for the lobby group Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. "For low-income households, those cost increases are going to be devastating. These are already people living on the edge."

Congress is now haggling over a proposed $3.2 billion in funding for the program for this winter, a figure that Energy Secretary Sam Bodman told reporters Dec. 8 the White House would support.

But debate is stalled as Republican lawmakers attempt to fund a $56 billion package of tax cuts cut for the next five years, said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

"The odds are if anything at all is added, it will be one of the table scraps that goes to the poor," Obey said. "Everything is being sacrificed to those tax cuts."

While utilities have also increased donations and solicitations for funds to help the poor, do-it-yourselfers are taking matters into their own hands.

Hardware stores like Home Depot say they are seeing higher sales of energy-saving devices like low-flow shower heads, weather-stripping, programmable thermostats and water heater blankets.

"We expect that demand to continue, especially through the New Year," said Home Depot spokesman Yancey Casey. "Especially with President Bush's energy plan which gives a tax credit for folks looking to make energy efficient refurbishments to their homes."

The federal energy bill President Bush signed in August gives major tax breaks for fuel-saving home improvements starting in the new year.