Applications for $25 million in heating aid from a Maryland energy assistance program are running way ahead of last year's schedule, and if the pace continues, the fund could be depleted before the end of January, according to the program's director.

As of last week, the government-financed Maryland Energy Assistance Program had certified 37,000 low-income families for one-time grants to help pay heating bills, or more than a third of the 98,000 households projected to receive aid.

"At this pace, we could run out of money in less than two more months," said Shirley E. Marcus, the program director. That outcome is not certain, Marcus said, although applications normally increase with the arrival of colder weather.

Maximum benefits, depending on income and family size, are $473 for oil and $324 for natural gas, with an average grant of $253.

The Maryland program expects to serve 8,000 more families than its original projection because federal financing was increased this fall and because applications were opened six weeks earlier than last year, Marcus said.

About a third of the households applying for grants have also signed up for the new Public Service Commission winter heating protection plan, which protects them against gas and electric cutoffs through March 31 if they make minimum monthly payments based on income.

At the same time, Baltimore Gas & Electric's $300,000 contribution to the privately financed Baltimore area Fuel Fund is virtually depleted, the earliest that that has happened.

The utility's money is used to credit $1 for each $2 the low-income customer pays on his or her BG&E bill through five fuel funds that operate under a coordinating unit, the Fuel Fund Inc.