President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the General Motors Factory ZERO electric vehicle assembly plant, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Biden administration is taking steps to help distribute several billion dollars in aid for winter heating and utility bills, an unprecedented sum that comes largely from its $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The package provided an additional $4.5 billion for the government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which typically has funding of $3 billion to $4 billion annually. Aid for renters can also cover utility costs, while the money provided to state, local and tribal governments can help families that face high heating bills and are ineligible for other programs.

"It's another example of where the American Rescue Plan included extra precautions to ensure we would be prepared," said Gene Sperling, who is overseeing coronavirus relief for the White House. "These new programs and funding were designed to ensure that if the weather was colder or the prices were higher, we would have the highest resources ever to help as many hard-pressed families as possible."

The aid helps to create a cushion that limits the shock of higher energy costs ahead of winter. Republican lawmakers have said the relief package, which became law in March, caused higher levels of inflation, with prices in October 6.2% higher than a year ago. The GOP argument is that the Biden relief package sent too much money into the economy, sending prices up and hurting middle-class and lower-income families.

"The Democrats' inflation is functioning like an ultra-punitive tax on the American families who can least afford it," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Wednesday.

But in this instance, the spending from the aid package is already helping to insulate millions of households from higher utility bills and reducing strains on household budgets. Estimates by the Urban Institute based off a Census Bureau survey indicate that a third of families used the monthly payments from the expanded child tax credit to pay their utility bills between July and October 2021.

Electricity and natural gas prices nationwide are roughly 11% higher than a year ago, according to the Labor Department's consumer price index. Heating oil prices have more than doubled over the past year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The administration is also calling on utilities and energy companies to use the available government resources to protect their most vulnerable customers.

Last week, the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority voted to extend its pandemic relief credits for local power companies in TVA's 7-state region through 2023 to help local electric utiltiies limit their power prices and provide resources for other energy assistance efforts.


Where to get local help

* Chattanooga Office of Family Empowerment, 501 West 12th Street, (423) 643-6434 - Donna H. Stone, Deputy Administrator Rachel Howard, Program Manager

* Bradley-Cleveland Community Services Agency, 155 Sixth Street, S.E., in Cleveland, Tennessee, (423) 479-4111 -Demetrius Ramsey, Executive Director

* Catoosa County, Georgia at 144 Catoosa Circle, Ringgold, Georgia, 706-858-0926

* Walker County, Georgia at 201 S. Main St., Courthouse Annex 3, LaFayette, Georgia, (706) 638-0818

* Whitfield County, Georgia at 420 N. Hamilton Street, Dalton, Georgia, (706) 226-7241

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Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm speaks during a clean energy event inside Port Authority Hangar 19 at JFK airport in New York, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. The tour and speech highlighted clean energy and efficiency technologies to combat the climate crisis and create good-paying jobs. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)