Minnesotans struggling to pay energy bills will be protected from service disconnection starting next Thursday, under the state's Cold Weather Rule.
The rule lasts until April 15, but does not offer complete protection from shut-offs. Customers still need to contact their utility company to arrange a payment plan for the winter months.
"First and foremost, contact us early so we can communicate what resources might be available to them in their particular area," said Pat Boland, Xcel Energy's manager of credit policy and compliance.
Low-income customers with large past-due balances can also apply for help under the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The state received a $27 million funding boost for the program from the Department of Energy last month.
If customers are not eligible, or if a portion of their past-due balance remains, they are required to set up a payment plan to avoid service disconnection. The plan's monthly payments cannot exceed 10 percent of household income.
Despite the economic downturn, Xcel Energy reports that past-due balances dropped by $2.7 million statewide over last year, to $22.2 million.
Boland said cooler temperatures and decreased air conditioner use accounted for some of the decline. He added that, oddly, the recession may have also played a role.
"In this economic situation, [customers are] focusing more on their core bills, their rent, their car payments, those types of things," he said. "They're not spending money on a lot of other things at this time."
About 29,000 customers have set up payment plans with Xcel Energy as of September.