The state's largest natural gas utility is asking its customers to pay a little extra each month, in a novel effort to help cover heating bills for low-income residents.
Piedmont Natural Gas, with 725,000 customers in the state, expects a surge of delinquent bills this winter in the midst of a grinding recession and is hoping to avert a corresponding increase in disconnected accounts.
The company this morning introduced a program to let its customers sign up to "round up" their bills, with the difference going to a fund to help residents who can't afford to pay their utility bills. The program rounds up Piedmont customer bills to the nearest dollar and will result in an average monthly donation of 50 cents, or about $6 a year.
If 100,000 people sign up, Piedmont would raise about $600,000 a year toward the program. The company is contributing $100,000 of its own money and will contribute $50,000 more if 100,000 people sign up.
The money would be given to the state Department of Health and Human Services to distribute to social-service agencies. The donations would be distributed to all customers who can't pay their utility bills, not just natural gas customers.
The state's natural gas and electric utilities contribute each year to low-income heating and cooling assistance programs, and also donations money from their customers. Last year Piedmont's customers contributed less than $20,000, said spokeswoman Loree Elswick.
Piedmont officials say the round-up approach could raise more money than conventional pleas for monthly contributions.
Piedmont does not provide service in Raleigh, but sells natural gas in such nearby communities as Clayton, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Goldsboro, and Southern Pines.
Piedmont customers interested in signing up for Share the Warmth can call customer service at 800-752-7504, go to www.piedmontng.com (and click on the Share the Warmth icon), or fill out an application form that will be mailed shortly with monthly utility bills.