As energy costs rise to near-record levels, low-income residents in Maryland are fearful that they'll be unable to afford to heat their homes this winter, and state agencies are bracing for a surge in people seeking assistance.
"As of right now, I have no idea what I'm going to do about this winter," said Robin McDaniel, a 45-year-old medical assistant and mother of two who lives in Baltimore. Two years ago, she went without heat for three months because her bill was too high.
The cost of heating a home is expected to increase by 70 percent in some areas of the country this winter -- from an average of $852 last year to $1,455 this year -- with the rise due in part to damage to gas wells in the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, said Neil Gamson, an economist with the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
"These are the highest prices I've ever seen," said Gamson, who has been analyzing fuel prices for two decades. Economists said it is too early to gauge Hurricane Rita's impact on gas prices.
Demand for natural gas has been rising over the past decade as the federal government encouraged power plants to switch to gas from coal to reduce air pollution.
Many fear that low-income residents and the elderly will be the worst-affected.
"It's like a quadruple whammy," said David Fox, executive director of Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, an advocacy group in Washington. "People are still paying off last year's heating bill, energy bills for the brutal summer, high gasoline costs -- and now this increase in home heating."
A recent estimate by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. predicts that customers will pay 25 percent to 33 percent more for natural gas bill this winter than last year. Customers who paid an average of $646 last year could pay between $810 and $860 this year.
In Baltimore, 35,000 families are expected to apply for heating-assistance programs this year, said David Tillman, a Housing Department spokesman.
Last year, 29,000 applied for aid.
McDaniel said she has started taking public transportation to save money on gas and has no idea how she will pay to heat her home. She recently applied for an energy assistance program to help provide her with a new furnace.
"We don't take things for granted," McDaniel said. "We unplug things when were are not using them, and we will have to place plastic over the windows."
Customers in other parts of the state can expect increases in their bills as well.
Washington Gas Energy Services Inc., a utility provider for six Maryland counties and Washington, expects its customers to pay an average of $171 more to heat their homes during the six-month cold-weather season, which starts in October.
Utility providers said they are pushing budget billing this winter as a result of the projected increase. That gives customers the option of setting uniform monthly payments based on anticipated annual use.
"We would expect, with the rising natural gas prices, that there will be more customers taking part in the budget billing program," said Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE.
The average cost of heating a home with oil is expected to rise to $1,700 this winter, up from about $1,350 last year, according to Sara Banaszak, an economist for the American Petroleum Institute.
"This is driven by a rise in crude oil prices from the year and the impact of the hurricane," she said.
Energy customers from low-income households might be eligible for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, which is funded with state and federal money and offers discounts on home utility costs.
Mary Lou Kueffer, director of the Office of Home Energy Programs, said the state expects an increase in people seeking assistance this winter.
Last year, 83,000 Maryland families received assistance.
"We're expecting about a 5 to 10 percent increase, and based on the cost increase, it can be higher -- it could be up to 20 percent," she said.
The Victorine Q. Adams Fuel Fund, formerly known as the Baltimore City Fuel Fund, expects an increase in the number of families seeking help. Last year, it served 2,000 families.
Carol Clements, the fund's executive director, said the fund is expecting an increase of up to 10 percent.
"We're already seeing quite a large number [of applicants] coming in," Clements said.
In Howard County, families who need help with utility bills are overwhelming the quasi-public Community Action Council, which administers several funds.
According to Director James B. Smith, the agency has distributed $24,000 to 100 families for utility assistance since Aug. 15. The group has a $50,000 fund from the Baltimore Community Foundation. The agency gave out $6,000 to 16 households on Thursday alone.
In Carroll County, about 1,800 households were given help with heating bills last year, said Stephen Mood, executive director of the nonprofit Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., the county's primary administrator of heating-assistance programs.