OAK HARBOR, Wash. — For Washington residents on low or fixed incomes, cold winter temps and rising energy costs force some to make hard choices.
John Owen sets his thermostat to 68 degrees -- not a degree more -- because that's what he can afford.
"If I turn it up anymore I'm not gonna be able to afford to pay the bill," he said.
Owen and his wife live on a fixed income of just $1,000 a month.
When they go to bed they turn the heat off and bundle up with jackets and blankets to save money.
"When it gets cold out, it gets cold in here, and the temperature changes rapidly," Owen said.
Owen said his heat bill nearly doubled this month to $140. He said he's never seen it so high and has had to make decisions he shouldn't have to.
"I have to make a choice," he said. "I have to decide if I going to eat, or am I going to pay my rent and my utilities."
Energy rates up this year
Puget Sound Energy rates jumped by nearly 9% this year while natural gas costs skyrocketed by around 23%.
An early and exceptionally cold winter is giving people sticker shock when they go to pay their bills.
The war in Ukraine along with less natural gas production and increased demand is driving prices higher.
"If they keep raising the prices, how are we gonna afford this?" John asked. "I don't know where it's gonna end."
Utility assistance programs
This winter is creating a "perfect storm" of sorts for agencies like the Opportunity Council, which helps people struggling with rent and utility bills.
COVID relief money to help people pay their bills is running out with the need for assistance higher than ever.
"We do our best to just get really creative, but it is hard on your heart and it is concerning when you know people are really struggling," said the council's Melissa Frasch-Brown.
Community Action of Skagit County provides assistance, as well.
For now, John Owen said he is keeping warm with a pot of beans, hoping for an early spring and brighter days ahead.
"We're just grateful for what we have," he said.
Washington state has among the lowest energy prices in America. Hawaii has the highest.