The state is asking nonprofit groups todistributing grants to low- and moderate-income New Jersey residents to help them pay their gas and electric bills.
The program,that aims to ensure utility customers retain their gas and electric service, has distributed between $800,000 and as much as $3 million over the past few years to homeowners and renters who have trouble paying their bills.
Unlike other programs, this one makes one-time grants available to customers to avert the turning off of their electric and gas service. To be eligible to participate, applicants must have a history of paying their utility bills in a timely manner.
The money for the program comes from unclaimed utility deposits by ratepayers. Nonprofit groups seeking to participate in the five-year initiative must submit applications to the New Jersey Board of Public utilities by May 15, 2013. The grants are expected to be awarded at the end of the year.
The program provides a one-time grant to eligible customers who have experienced problems paying utility bills for unforeseen reasons, such as an unexpected illness or a job layoff. It is similar to another program administered by the state, which provides grants of up $225 for customers experiencing payment problems. That program gave out $65 million last year.
That is far less than what ratepayers shell out to help low-and moderate-income residents help meet their utility bills under another program. This initiative guarantees those customers pay no more than 6 percent of their household income on electric and gas bills, a program that last year cost state utility customers $230 million, down from the prior year's $242 million.
BPU officials attributed the drop to lower natural gas prices, which reduced both the cost of producing electricity and the expense of heating homes with the fossil fuel.
New Jersey has some of the highest energy bills in the nation. Some businesses complain that surcharges on electric and gas bills for these sorts of programs and to promote cleaner ways of producing electricity have driven up utility bills in the state.