Despite mild fall temperatures in the Southeast, forecasters predict that this winter will be significantly colder than last, resulting in higher natural gas bills for most homes.
The forecast, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, covers November through March and predicts temperatures will be nearly 20 percent lower this year than last.
One caveat: Last winter was so warm that many found themselves cranking up air conditioners instead of thermostats in late December, when temperatures in Charlotte and Nashville, for example, climbed into the muggy mid-70s.
Duke Energy forecasters also think this winter will be colder than last. Last year’s balmy winter was a byproduct of the El Nino weather pattern, which brings warmer than normal ocean temperatures to the Equatorial Pacific and disrupts weather patterns. Duke Energy forecaster Max Thompson said El Nino is over and may evolve into a La Nina pattern sometime over the winter.
This winter’s forecast is more in line with normal temperatures over the past 30 years.
In its annual winter bills forecast, Piedmont Natural Gas estimates the average residential customer will see bills rise about $20 to $30 a month compared to the same time last year, for a total increase of $100 to $150.
Slightly higher natural gas prices will also contribute to an increase in heating bills. “They are well below what they were five and 10 years ago. We’re still seeing costs that are very low by historical standards,” said David Trusty, a Piedmont Natural Gas spokesman. “Domestic production has had a very positive impact on natural gas prices.”
It’s difficult for Duke Energy to estimate winter heating bills for an average customer because the cost of heat isn’t separated from other electricity uses in the home, which could include a water heater, kitchen range, space heaters and a number of electronics. Overall electric costs are also affected by the energy efficiency of major and small appliances.
If you’re looking to defray higher costs, think about lowering the thermostat or investing in appliances and equipment with higher efficiency. You may pay more up front but save in the long run.
And if you want to help those struggling to pay their bills, consider contributing to Share the Warmth and other programs. Customers who sign up for Share the Warmth, for example, agree to round their bills up to the next dollar, with the proceeds going to help needy families pay their energy bills.
Piedmont Natural Gas, a Duke Energy subsidiary, last year donated $144,000 from the program to nonprofit agencies in the Carolinas and Tennessee. That includes Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte, which helps families struggling with rent, utilities and food. Thanks in part to such donations, the agency helped about 15,000 Charlotte residents pay their housing and utility bills.
Share the Warmth started in 1985 and has donated more than $30 million to help Carolinas residents with winter heating bills. It’s funded through donations from customers, Duke Energy employees and the Duke Energy Foundation. Duke Energy matches customer and employee donations of up to $500,000 during the winter heating season. Last year, the Duke Energy program gave $1.28 million to help customers pay utility bills.
In Charlotte, now in the midst of an affordable housing shortage, the average Crisis Assistance client pays 76 percent of family income for housing and energy. Most work or are elderly and living on fixed incomes that haven’t kept pace with rising housing and medical costs.
A job loss, an illness, a sick child or any cost-of-living increase can send such families into a financial free fall, said Tovi Martin of Crisis Assistance Ministry.
"Any time the weather fluctuates, people experience a spike in their costs,” Martin said. “Every time a utility customer can add a donation to their bill, it may not make a big difference to them, but it could make a huge impact on someone else. Sometimes $50 to $75 may be the difference between having heat or not.”
Winter help around the country
Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas offer these programs for customers who need help with bills:
- Share the Warmth, Carolinas and Tennessee: Works with more than 80 agencies.
- Energy Neighbor Fund: For Duke Energy Progress areas in North and South Carolina; works with the N.C. Division of Economic and Family Services and the S.C. Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.
- Energy Neighbor Fund, Florida: Available to residents served by Duke Energy in Florida; through United Way and other agencies.
- Helping Hand, Indiana: Funds distributed through the Indiana Community Action Association Energy Assistance Program.
- Heat Share, Ohio: Administered through the Salvation Army.
- Winter Care, Kentucky: Partners with the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission.