ST. PAUL — Minnesota officials and consumer advocates are urging residents who are struggling to pay their power bills to apply for an assistance program recently infused with extra funding from the federal government.

The application period for the program has been lengthened and eligibility extended to higher-earning households than have been allowed in the past. Officials and advocates say the need for assistance is especially great in light of economic hardship caused by the COVID-10 pandemic, consumer protections for which are expiring.

According to Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Grace Arnold, there are approximately 340,000 households served by regulated utilities in Minnesota such as Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power that are behind on their bills. That is due in part, she said, to the moratorium on disconnections for non-payment that state regulators imposed.

"People had more flexibility during the pandemic," Arnold said in an interview Tuesday, July 20. "That flexibility is going away. And those utilities are going to be able to start disconnecting on August 2."

Major Minnesota utilities are recovering their power to disconnect late-paying customers as the wider economy heals from the recession COVID-19 caused. Other forms of consumer protection, like the state-level eviction ban, are being walked back in similar fashion.

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"Even though we're coming out of the official state of emergency, a lot of people are really struggling to afford energy bills," Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota Outreach Director Carmen Carruthers said in a statement Tuesday. "The good news is that there are resources and protections available."

Armed with an additional $167 million in federal pandemic relief funds, the commerce department hopes to help approximately 140,000 households in Minnesota with their power bills between now and late 2022, according to Arnold. That would be a slight increase over a typical year, she said, but with a greater amount of assistance available per household.

Minnesotans can apply for the Energy Assistance Program either through their utility company and can contact the commerce department for assistance by phone at 1-800-657-3782 or by emailing customer.puc@state.mn.us. In a news release, the department said qualifying households could receive as much as $1,600 in aid for their energy bills and may be eligible for an additional $1,200 that can go toward late bills.

In another shift for the program, which typically stops taking applications in May, Minnesotans can currently apply year-round. The income cap for the program has also been raised, allowing residents making 60% of the state median income or less over the past three months eligible to apply.

Assistance for the program is not given directly to applying households, according to Michael Schmitz, director of the commerce department Office of Energy Assistance Programs.

"We basically pay your energy provider directly on your behalf," he said in an interview.

Enrolling in the program can also verify an individual's eligibility for a separate state program that can help offset the cost of energy appliance upgrades, according to a commerce department news release. The Citizen's Utility Board, a consumer group, said in a news release Tuesday that qualifying for the energy program also grants households shut-off protections through April of next year.

Commerce department officials said the extra money for needy bill payers is soon to be disbursed and will be available until September of next year. Funds left unspent at that point are slated to return to the federal government.