January was 11.7 percent colder than normal, and 29 percent colder than last year
An early start to the winter heating season, coupled with sustained cold weather in January, has National Fuel Gas Distribution Corp. urging consumers to consider budget billing to spread out heating bill balances over 12 months and to check to see if they qualify for available payment assistance programs.
Without question, this winter has been cold. The month of November was 11. 7 percent colder than normal, December was 5.4 percent colder, and January was 11.7 percent colder than normal. When compared to last year, January 2014 was a staggering 29 percent colder than 2013.
"Since December, cold snaps triggered by the polar vortex have led to record demand for natural gas," said Karen L. Merkel, spokesperson for National Fuel. "The bigger the difference between the temperature outside and the thermostat setting inside, the harder your heating system will work and the more energy it will use, even if you don't turn the thermostat higher."
Bitter cold temperatures, accompanied by ice and snow, have led to widespread school and business closings in many areas across Western New York, prompting local families to remain home during periods when they might otherwise adjust their thermostats downward.
"Customer heating bills will be higher this winter, because consumption, or customer usage, of natural gas to heat homes has been higher than in the previous two winters, which were warmer than normal," Merkel said. "Weather can have a substantial impact on a homeowner's heating bill, and with this year's extreme, prolonged cold, it takes considerably more energy to maintain the comfort we are used to. More energy translates into higher bills."
This winter has been one for the record books for extreme and prolonged cold and gas usage. According to National Fuel's records, Jan. 28 was the "peak day of natural gas usage," which was the highest single day of usage since the winter of 2003-04. The high temperature of 7 degrees and the low of 0 degrees was the coldest day in a frigid month, and gas usage was nearly 70 percent higher than an average January day.
National Fuel customers were somewhat insulated from the price increases as more than 55 percent of the gas purchased this winter to heat their homes was based on summer and forward pricing strategies, the majority of which was placed into nearby, underground natural gas storage facilities. Through its gas management plan, the utility purchases natural gas at the best possible cost while ensuring security of supply and reliability of delivery. The utility has a variety of natural gas supply sources and uses a combination of proven methods that allow flexibility to adjust purchases - including forward pricing, monthly pricing, spot pricing, basin diversity and the use of underground storage. While consumption of natural gas has increased, the market price of natural gas has risen as well.
As to the delivery rates National Fuel customers pay, those rates haven't changed in more than six years, as approved in 2007 by the New York State Public Service Commission. The only increase in customer bills, on the delivery side, has been a result of additional state-mandated taxes.
Another advantage for National Fuel customers is the Western New York service territory is close to domestic supply areas with ample and growing natural gas production, including the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. National Fuel has enough pipeline capacity to deliver the gas reliably and consistently in the frigid weather. Ready access to natural gas benefits customers, too, as it remains the lowest-cost home heating fuel compared to commonly used alternatives such as propane or oil.
"Regionally, we are in a great spot here in Western New York, from pipeline capacity to natural gas production, as nearly all of the gas being consumed by our utility customers this winter is coming from Pennsylvania's shale regions. As a result, we have not been forced to make purchases at some of the dramatic gas pricing levels experienced by cities along the East Coast and even into Canada during the past six weeks. Equally important, our system is operating as planned as we continue to meet the needs even during the coldest of weather," Merkel said.
The prospect of higher heating bills stemming from the coldest sustained temperatures in years has triggered interest in National Fuel's budget plan billing as well as available payment assistance plans. The budget plan provides a way for customers to have level, predictable monthly gas payments, stabilizing the monthly heating bill for the year. Assistance program information is available at www.nationalfuelgas.com or by contacting customer service at 1-800-365-3234.
The utility encourages its customers to contact a customer assistance representative to discuss their personal situation and to check if they qualify for assistance or various payment options. As well, information is available on the utility's website at www.nationalfuelgas.com.
"We realize that any bill increase can affect our customers and their ability to pay their monthly heating bills," Merkel said. "We have numerous programs available to help individuals who struggle to make payments."
The Home Energy Assistance Program is contingent on available federal monies and could be closing very soon as funding is dwindling. This program accepts applications based on income guidelines. Funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. For additional information, visit www.HEAPhelps.com or call 1-877-443-2743.
Due in part to a collaborative partnership with Erie County and New York state, approximately 87,000 National Fuel customers received financial relief last winter in helping to pay their home heating bill.
A quick call to customer service can provide information on the following programs: "Neighbor For Neighbor" heat fund is open year-round and helps qualified customers, aged 55 years or older, or who have a certified medical condition, or are disabled, or are currently receiving unemployment benefits to prevent an energy emergency; low-income customer affordability assistance program offers stable bills, reduced rates and debt forgiveness; a deferred payment agreement allows the potential to negotiate a repayment plan in the event of a problem or special circumstance; special protections is applicable for households where all residents are aged 62 years or older, 18 years or younger, blind or disabled. As well, National Fuel's conservation incentive program offers rebates for high efficiency natural gas equipment and free weatherization services for income-eligible customers, both producing substantial savings in heating bills over the long-term.
National Fuel offers additional energy savings tips at its conservation incentive program website at www.nationalfuelforthought.com to help customers manage their energy usage and bills during the cold winter weather.
With the weather being far from normal - and with two more months before the close of the winter heating season - natural gas customers should expect an increase in their heating bills this winter heating season.