Atmos Energy Corp. is launching a new self-service Web site to help nearly 770 energy assistance agencies across its 11-state service area assist low-income customers in paying their natural gas bills.
Energy assistance agencies distribute funds to pay, on average, one-fifth of the annual energy costs of low-income consumers. Most recipients do not receive welfare but are working, elderly or disabled people with below-poverty incomes.
The federal government in fiscal 2002 is providing a total of $2 billion in funding through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Utilities and their customers, through voluntary fuel funds, contributed approximately
$102 million for energy assistance in 2001. Some states, charities, churches and social service agencies also distribute energy assistance funds.
Promptly crediting energy-assistance dollars to utility accounts of needy families is an issue that affects both the assistance agencies and the utilities. Typically, a number of manual steps are involved, such as calling the utility, waiting to obtain customer account information, faxing documents back and forth, and scheduling service appointments to reconnect those with delinquent accounts.
The Atmos energy assistance Web site replaces all these manual steps, using a secure and fast process over the Internet. Energy assistance agencies can easily access a customer’s account information to determine whether a family qualifies for assistance and then make online pledges directly to the customer’s account.
“This is helpful for us and saves a lot of time, so that we can help clients sooner,” said Phyllis Cook, deputy director of Panhandle Community Services, which serves individuals in 26 counties in the Texas Panhandle and West Texas.
Atmos’ new site was tested this past December and January with a number of energy assistance agencies in West Texas. It is now available to all the agencies that serve customers of Atmos’ five operating divisions. The agencies can view their pledges online at any time. In addition, they can receive help from Atmos’ Customer Support Center by telephone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To help energy assistance agencies use the new Web site, Atmos’ managers of public affairs and customer account representatives will be meeting with agency staffs and conducting training during the coming months.
“This new online site is one of the many ways that Atmos is applying information technology to improve our customer service and to reduce our operating costs,” said Earl Fischer, senior vice president, utility operations, for Atmos Energy Corporation. “The energy assistance agencies can pledge funds to help prevent service disruptions for many families. In addition, using this Web site lowers our costs because it reduces our collection expense, and we don’t have to send out service technicians as often to disconnect customers for nonpayment.”
Fischer said that Atmos is providing the technical details of the Web site to the Railroad Commission of Texas for use by its Gas Services Division. The division handles customer service matters for natural gas utilities in Texas. Atmos also is working with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs Energy Assistance Section potentially to adapt the Web site to help people who apply for weatherization assistance.
“We are happy to share this information with any utility company or regulatory commission that asks us,” Fischer said. “We are a caring company, and the more customers we can help, the better for us, the natural gas industry and the people of our country.”
Providing adequate and prompt funding for energy assistance has been a major issue before the current Congress. In January, Congress approved and sent to President Bush the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2001 to help low-income households. Low-income households experienced large increases in their home heating costs during the record-cold winter of 2000-2001.
In addition, many states had exhausted their federal LIHEAP allocations because the program is serving one million more households than it had in 2001. Members of Congress noted that, because of a combination of circumstances, many low-income households had utility debts at considerably higher levels than in past years. Legislation now in Congress to create a comprehensive national energy policy would increase energy-assistance funding from $2 billion to $3.4 billion.
Atmos Energy Corp., headquartered in Dallas, is the fifth-largest pure natural gas distributor in the United States. It distributes natural gas to about 1.4 million customers in 11 states through its operating divisions. For more information, visit www.atmosenergy.com.