CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thursday was the first day West Virginians could apply for financial help through the Dollar Energy Fund, which helps people pay their utility bills.
"It's a huge need," said Jacqueline Roberts, director of the state Public Service Commission Consumer Advocacy Division. "It's a really important benefit for West Virginia residents that qualify."
By working with six area utility companies, the Dollar Energy Fund -- acting through the West Virginia Utility Assistance Program -- has restored utility service to 3,677 households and helped 18,000 low-income households avoid having their service cut off in the first place, said Rachel Coffman, Dollar Energy program manager for the Appalachian region.
"Utility assistance is a year-long epidemic," Coffman said, "and every year, the demand grows."
The program allows households at or below the federal poverty line -- which is $23,550 for a family of four -- to apply once per utility each year to avoid termination.
Since 2008, the program has contributed $6 million through grants, fundraising, foundation grants and utility company match programs toward reducing the burden of utility costs for West Virginians in need, Coffman said.
Utilities that participate include Equitable Gas, Dominion Hope, Mountaineer Gas, Appalachian Power, First Energy and West Virginia American Water.
For customers of most of those utilities, the maximum grant is $500. This year, though, Appalachian Power has reduced the maximum grant its customers can receive to $300. Grants for Appalachian Power customers also won't be available until Dec. 1.
"It's not a constant stream of funding," Coffman said of the grants. "It's a one-time deal, just to try and get you back on your feet if you ran into some hard times."
American Electric Power, Appalachian Power's parent company, reviewed its grants from the past five years and decided to make the change to more effectively spread out funding, said AEP coordinator Dwight Linkous.
"There seem to be more and more customers in need," Linkous said. "We will be better able to meet the needs of those customers during the more critical times when that demand is really the highest for that funding."