High fuel costs, low temperatures mean heating bills will go up

One thing is certain about your heating bill this winter: Gas or electric, it’s not going to be good.

The two big factors in the cost of home heating are the cost of fuel and the temperature outside. This year, fuel’s up and the temperature’s down.

“I’ve already gotten complaints from people that their bills were too high,” said Niki Christopher of the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents residential utility customers. “And I fully expect the January and February bills are going to be worse than they were in December.”

The monthly cost of natural gas, a key indicator of overall energy cost, is now at $6.01 per thousand cubic feet, according to Dawn Ewing of Kansas Gas Service, the state’s dominant natural gas company. That’s up from $5.15 at this same time last year, Ewing said.

The cost of the gas is an almost direct pass-through to customers’ bills.

The tiny glimmer of good news is that the cost of gas has come down in recent years because of increased production.

So while bills will be substantially higher than Kansans are used to, they might not get as high as they were in the winter of 2000-2001, when the cost of gas peaked near $11 per thousand cubic feet.

Also, Kansas Gas customers won’t have to deal with shortages like the ones in the propane market this winter.

“We expect to have an adequate supply of natural gas to meet our customers’ winter heating needs,” Ewing said.

Supplies also are adequate at Black Hills Energy, which provides gas service to about one-fourth of Wichita, primarily in the northwest part of town, said company spokeswoman Monique Pope.

The Kansas Municipal Energy Agency, an umbrella organization for smaller local utilities, sent out a warning notice last week that high demand is reducing availability and raising prices in the spot market for gas. The notice requested that member utilities try to get their customers to reduce gas usage wherever possible through Monday.

Joni Shadonix, the agency’s energy controller for gas, said the notice was primarily to warn the member cities of price spikes, but she does not expect anyone’s gas service to be curtailed.

Really cold

The main problem is that it’s been cold. Really, really cold. So your heater has to run longer to get your rooms up to room temperature.

Just how cold has it been?

Scott Smith, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita, ran a computer report on the first 71 days of this winter and here are some highlights – or lowlights if you prefer:

The normal average temperature for the period is 37.2 degrees. Last year’s average was 38.8. This year, it’s 21.1, 16.1 degrees colder.

This year, we’ve had 21 days when the daily low temperature has been more than 10 degrees below average – and six days when the temperatures were 20 or more below average. Last year, we had only five days when the low was more than 10 degrees below average, and none where it dipped to 20 below the average.

Twenty-one times this year, the low has been in the single digits. Last year that only happened twice.

The lowest low last year was 7 degrees. And it warmed up to a balmy 45 later that day. The lowest low this year was five below zero and the high that day hit only 15.

Westar Energy, the state’s major power company, also keeps close track of the weather. Paul Heitkotter, a manager with Westar’s data and conservation programs, said December was 35 percent colder than November, 18 percent colder than December of 2012 and 15 percent colder than normal.

With numbers like that, “People are going to see higher bills, no matter what they’re heating with right now,” he said.

‘Hunker down’

Some of the biggest surprises could come for people who heat their homes with a heat pump, which ordinarily is one of the most efficient methods of home heating.

Essentially an air conditioner that can work in reverse, a heat pump draws heat from the outside air, or in some cases the ground, and transports it inside.

But when it’s really cold outside, about 25 or below with an air heat pump – the system can’t bring in enough heat to maintain a comfortable interior temperature. So the unit defaults to a more conventional backup heat source – either a gas burner or a radiant heating element.

So not only does the system run more, it also runs less efficiently.

“Either way it drives up the bills,” said Christopher, of CURB. “A heat pump is very good, very efficient at moderate temperatures. But it can’t do it all when it gets this cold.”

So what to do about it?

In the short term, not much, beyond the usual warnings to make sure doors and windows are well sealed to keep the cold drafts to a minimum, said Westar’s Heitkotter. And while the standard recommendation is to keep the thermostat at 68, “If you can cut that back a degree or two, that would help,” he added.

But when it’s this cold, you have to “kind of just hunker down and try to get through it,” he said.

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