Despite high numbers of utility shutoffs, a jump in the number of households entering winter without a safe source of heat, and a deepening recession, there is at least one ray of hope on the energy front: a major expansion this winter in access to energy assistance.

Yesterday, the Public Utility Commission said Pennsylvania gas and electric utilities had cut off service to a record 296,197 households at some point in the first 11 months of the year, up 20 percent from last year. The commission also reported that 17,745 homes across the state still lacked a safe source of central heat at the start of December, up 5 percent from 2007. Almost half were in Philadelphia and surrounding counties.

That was the bad news, and PUC officials stressed the risks that occur when people rely on kerosene or electric space heaters as alternative heat sources. But state and utility officials said the good news was that significantly more aid was available this winter - including to those the commission calls the "new poor," victims of the current recession.

With little fanfare this fall, Congress doubled funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to $5 billion, and states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey responded by expanding eligibility.

For instance, LIHEAP funds will be available this winter to a family of four earning up to $44,443 in Pennsylvania, or up to $47,700 in New Jersey.

Congress also increased funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps homeowners and renters make their homes more energy-efficient, said Liz Robinson, executive director of the city's Energy Coordinating Agency.

Robinson said her agency, a nonprofit organization that administers Philadelphia's energy-assistance programs, was overwhelmed in the days before Dec. 1, as utilities rushed to terminate customers behind in their bills before the start of an annual moratorium barring shutoffs of low-income households.

"The number of people who were eligible and needed assistance, and needed it within a short period of time, was unparalleled," Robinson said.

Robinson and others said the crush was exacerbated by several factors, including this year's record energy costs, a shortage of LIHEAP funds last winter, and the deteriorating economy.

The lack of funds last winter left many utility customers hurting, said John Rowe, executive director of the nonprofit Utility Emergency Services Fund. Rowe said that even under last winter's tighter LIHEAP eligibility rules, 800,000 Pennsylvania families qualified for assistance but only half that many were served.

"It was rough, real rough," said Rowe, whose organization provides grants of up to $250, matched by area utilities, to restore service after a shutoff.

The boost in LIHEAP funding, passed in September after this summer's spike in energy prices, could help restore service to some of the 2,563 Peco Energy customers still shut off as winter begins, said Peco spokeswoman Cathy Engel.

Engel said Peco found that about 1,800 of those customers are eligible for LIHEAP grants under the new rules. If a customer designates a LIHEAP crisis grant to Peco, the utility will restore service "even if it doesn't pay off the past-due balance," Engel said.

PGW vice president Steven P. Hershey said the city-owned utility might do the same, though "in some circumstances we require a co-pay."

Utility officials say it is crucial for customers to call before they fall behind in their bills. Peco, for example, will not start a customer on a budget billing plan, which averages monthly costs throughout the year, if the customer is already past due.

"Termination is our last resort," Engel said. "Customers should call us as soon as they have trouble paying their bill. The sooner they call us, the more options we have."

Regulators and utility officials say that with job losses spreading, the increase in LIHEAP aid could not have come at a better time.

People who have never sought help "are calling the utilities for payment programs," said Eric Hartsfield, of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. "A middle-class family that might have been working on Wall Street and has never been in this situation before may not have known what to do."

Help for Heat

Higher Eligibility Limits

To assist households that cannot otherwise pay winter utility bills, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have raised income limits for the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Pennsylvania:

Family of 1. . . $23,110

2. . . $30,221

3. . . $37,332

4. . . $44,443

New Jersey:

Family of 1. . . $23,400

2. . . $31,500

3. . . $39,600

4. . . $47,700

Where to Call

Pennsylvania:

Bucks County, 215-781-3393 or 1-800-616-6481;

Chester County, 610-466-1042;

Delaware County, 610-447-3099;

Montgomery County, 610-272-1752;

Philadelphia, 215-560-1583.

Peco Energy, 800-344-3574

PGW, 215 235-1000, or for recorded information, 215-684-6100

Energy Coordinating Agency, which runs the neighborhood centers: 215-988-0929

New Jersey:

call the state hotline at 800-510-3102

Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.