Last year at this time, about 78,000 households had applied for energy assistance in Minnesota. This year, that number has jumped by nearly 10,000 more families.
Nancy Cummings oversees the program in Hubbard, Becker and Mahnomen counties. Cummings sees more desperation in the people coming for help.
"Usually, people have fuel left over from the spring, but this year we're finding that many, many households are sitting with empty propane and fuel oil tanks," said Cummings. "That isn't normal. People virtually let themselves run dry last spring, and it was just because the prices were so high they couldn't afford to put anything in."
Home heating prices have recently dropped some, but they're still higher than they were last year. That's forcing some people to turn to affordable alternatives.
"We have many more people who are using wood this year when they're applying for energy assistance," Cummings said. "They probably still owe money from last year and just don't feel that they can afford propane or fuel oil."
The good news is that this month Minnesota received a record amount of federal funding for low income energy assistance. At $144.5 million, the amount is nearly double the normal appropriation.
Utility companies around the state say the weak economy and higher heating prices have triggered some new trends for homeowners.
“This year we're finding that many, many households are sitting with empty propane and fuel oil tanks, and that isn't normal.”Nancy Cummings
Sam Mason is a spokesman for Beltrami Electric, a cooperative that serves about 16,000 customers in north central Minnesota. Mason says more people are putting plastic sheeting over windows or calking cracks to prevent heat from escaping.
Mason is also seeing more customers upgrading or modifying their furnaces to make them more efficient. He says a lot more people are talking about conservation.
"That's a bigger topic now, frankly, than it has been for years and years," Mason said. "When energy was cheaper, if I had a less efficient heater or furnace, it didn't bother me so much. But now I'm looking at, you know what, I'm going to invest in a heat pump or something that's got some higher efficiencies."
Power companies across the state are working with customers who are behind on their bills.
Most Minnesotans are protected by the Cold Weather Rule, which means that during winter months, natural gas and electric companies can't shut off power to struggling customers as long as those customers work out a payment plan.
Xcel Energy provides gas and electricity to more than a million Minnesota customers, mostly in the metro area. Xcel spokesman Patrick Boland says right now the company is carrying about $22 million in past due accounts that are more than a month late. That's several hundred thousand dollars higher than last year.
Xcel is trying to track down about 1,000 customers who've been shut off because of non-payment.
Some of those properties may be empty because they're in foreclosure. Boland says cities, especially folks in municipal water works departments, are concerned about frozen pipes and big messes in those unheated homes.
"The vacant properties is a concern and a lot of times we're not able to track down who really is the owner or what bank is holding the mortgage or what have you," said Boland. "It's a real problem in some areas."
Boland expects to see more people struggling to pay their bills this year, and he thinks some of those will be asking for help for the first time.
"They're very much on the edge and it's what some folks term the 'working poor,'" said Boland. "These are the folks that may be contacting us this year for the first time or may not be eligible for some of those assistance programs that are out there. We want to hear from those folks. We have a lot of different payment plans that we can offer them."
Most people who fall behind on winter heating bills eventually catch up. Though Excel Energy carries millions of dollars in past due accounts, company officials say the amount that goes uncollected each year is well below one percent.