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Winter heating costs to rise this winter

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The U.S. Department of Energy is forecasting a sharp increase in heating costs for people across the country this winter.

For Midwesterners, the agency is predicting that those who heat with natural gas or propane will pay 30 percent more than last winter.

But that includes places like Chicago and Minneapolis. The increase in Wichita will likely be less because of our milder winters.

For those who heat with electricity, often apartment dwellers, the agency is predicting an 8 percent increase in total costs. That reflects the fact that they got a much smaller break last year.

This winter’s increase comes because we had it so good last year, with an exceptionally mild winter and historically low prices for natural gas and propane. The increase projected for this winter would return the cost to about the average for the last decade.

The agency predicts the actual average cost for the entire Midwest – over six months from Oct. 1 to March 31 – will be about $150 more. That average increase will likely be less in Wichita.

Black Hills Energy, which serves about 30,000 customers in the Wichita area, along with customers across the region, is predicting that its customers will pay about 10 percent more this year than last year.

Even so, any increase is difficult for those already living with tight budgets. Center of Hope is a local agency aimed at preventing homelessness by supporting families who face eviction or who may have their utilities cut off.

“We have people on fixed incomes, lost jobs, medical issues, so an increase of any type is a big burden,” executive director George Dinkel said Thursday.

Kansas Gas Service, which covers about half of the city, said it couldn’t comment. The company is in the midst of seeking an increase of $4.34 per month per customer to pay for system upgrades, excluding the price of gas.

The cost of natural gas has about doubled from a low of $1.57 per million BTU set in March. But even so, the $2.91 per million BTU of gas set this week is still about average for the past five years.

The price increase is being caused by a decrease in production – the first year-over-year decrease since 2005 – brought about by the low prices of last winter.

The other piece that’s driving the increase in heating bills is the weather. The long-term forecast calls for a significantly colder winter. That is certainly true for the northern parts of the Midwest, said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Dodge City.

But he’s leaning against forecasting that for Kansas. He sees the Kansas winter as more volatile, with deep cold broken by rapid warming spells.

“I expect we’ll have fairly memorable cold surges, but for energy usage, overall I think it will be about the average,” Ruthi said.

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Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis

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