In Spokane, Wash., Avista charges a tiny tariff on its electric bills. The money pays for grants so that low-income households can keep the heat on during the winter months. In Oregon, the legislature tells the state's two largest utilities to collect $15 million a year for power bill payment assistance.
In Montana, the state collected $3.6 million in energy assistance funds and $1.5 million in energy efficiency funds in 2007 to help low-income households pay for utilities.
But in Idaho, establishing heating assistance programs for low-income families that are funded by other customers is considered discrimination.
"In Idaho, there's a statutory provision that says that rates cannot be unreasonably discriminatory," said Beverly Barker, director of consumer assistance at the Public Utilities Commission. "We don't discriminate between different types of residential customers with respect to their income."
For several years, the Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho and several other groups have been interested in changing the law so that Idaho utility companies are able to offer more substantial heating assistance and other low-income programs.
"All we're saying is give the utilities an option," said Teri Ottens, a policy adviser and former director of CAPAI. "It's up to the utilities how they do it."
CAPAI's proposal, which has been drafted into a bill, would allow utilities to provide special rates, charges or services to low-income customers funded by charges to other customers.
Avista, which provides power to five northern Idaho counties, already has a bill payment assistance program in Washington that it could easily expand.
It's called the Low Income Rate Assistance Program, and is modeled after a federal heating-assistance grant program. The company charges customers a little extra and the funds are distributed to needy households through community action partnerships in Washington—agencies similar to CAPAI's in Idaho.
But even if Avista wanted to start such a program in Idaho, it would not be allowed.
"The commission doesn't have the authority to grant it," said Avista spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst. "The Legislature needs to grant it."
Idaho's Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utility companies that operate in the state, has increasingly recognized the need for more low-income assistance programs in the past year.
In October, the PUC held a pair of hearings on energy affordability in Idaho, prefaced with this statement: "The Commission recognizes that there are a variety of factors contributing to significant upward pressure on electric and natural gas rates in Idaho. Energy affordability has become a central issue for many Idaho households and businesses."
In the draft report from the October workshops, the PUC staff recommended that the three Public Utilities commissioners support a bill that allows regulated Idaho gas and electric companies to implement benefit programs for low-income residential customers in a manner similar to CAPAI's proposal.
The public can comment on the PUC's energy affordability recommendations through Dec. 19 and the Commission will formally consider the recommendations on Jan. 16, 2009.
But some of the recommendations are already creeping into other PUC cases.
Idaho Power has asked for an average 6.3 percent rate increase for residential customers, and the PUC is taking testimony this month to decide whether the increase is warranted.
That testimony includes recommendations from PUC staff that Idaho Power increase its aid to low-income customers in the form of more energy-efficiency funding and other assistance for poorer customers.
Idaho Power currently participates in Project Share in which customers voluntarily contribute to a low-income fund. The Salvation Army distributes this money in the form of energy grants to qualifying households.
"We really feel like there is a tremendous amount that we do today to assist folks," said Idaho Power spokeswoman Echo Chadwick.
Idaho Power customers in Idaho and Oregon donated $184,833 to Project Share last year, according to the PUC.
Idaho Power also contributes $1.2 million to insulate and seal homes for low-income Idahoans, offers a winter bill payment plan and provides information to customers on energy efficiency. A recent company newsletter recommends buying an Energy Star-rated analog-to-digital television converter box.
Other Idaho utilities contribute to low-income funds through an annual golf tournament and a radio telethon.
The lion's share of energy assistance for the poor in Idaho, however, comes through a federal program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Last year 101,000 Idahoans qualified for LIHEAP grants, but the state only received enough money to help 32,843 households.
This year, Congress increased funding for LIHEAP, and Idaho's share has nearly doubled to $17.4 million.
At the El-Ada Community Partnership office in Garden City, people who are having trouble paying their power bills have been applying in droves for LIHEAP assistance.
Mary Summers moved back to Boise this fall after her husband, a hardwood floor installer, was laid off from his job in Idaho Falls.
"When we lived in Idaho Falls, we were making really good money," Summers said.
Summers brought in a stack of bills and pay stubs, and after entering her information into a computer, advocate Natasha Carraway calculated her benefit. The one-time grant will pay for about three months of Summer's heating costs.
But as the PUC considers expanding Idaho's energy-affordability programs, there are solutions that utility companies could implement on their own.
"There are things that the utilities can do now, and what we're recommending is being more flexible in making payment arrangements with customers," Barker said.
The PUC required each of the utilities to participate in the energy-affordability workshops and Barker said the primary interest of the power companies is increasing energy efficiency, and not necessarily bill-assistance programs.
"Clearly everybody in our workshops was supportive of increasing energy efficiency and trying to come up with programs that would help low-income people and people on the margins with being able to be more energy efficient," she said.
Barker said that the PUC is keenly aware of the shifting landscape of affordability for Idaho customers as fuel prices and joblessness continue to rise.
"It's a whole new set of people that are being impacted by this," she said. "These are people who have never accessed assistance programs before."