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Heating costs are cold reality this winter

Sunday, March 2, 2014
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— Staying warm hasn’t been easy this winter.

Bone-chilling weather descended upon the Capital Region during the late fall and has lingered through the winter with only a few days of respite. Frequent snowfall and large accumulations have accentuated how firm winter’s icy grip is throughout the Northeast.

Perhaps the only thing left unfrozen these days is the cost of getting out of the cold. Frigid temperatures have driven energy bills skyward, leaving many frost-weary residents longing for the spring thaw.

National Grid’s supply charges for eastern New York increased by 46 percent in December and 55 percent in January. Meanwhile, New York set a peak electrical demand record of 25,738 megawatts in January, according to figures released by the New York Independent System Operator last month.

The confluence of supply charges and peak demand even prompted the state Public Service Commission to authorize National Grid a $32 million temporary credit to lessen the brunt of yet another increase that was barreling toward consumers in February. The first-ever measure proved timely, especially given that February — even with a brief thaw in the middle of the month — was 3.5 degrees colder than normal.

“It’s definitely been a lot colder than normal and snowier than normal,” said Tom Wasula, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany. “Those thaws kind of kept the temperatures from being way below normal.”

Heating degree-days — a measurement that aims to quantify the demand for heating energy — are also up significantly over the 30-year norm. Since December, the Albany area has seen 3,693 heating degree-days, which is up from the 3,224 degree-days during the same period last year.

The mercury has dipped below zero 10 times this winter, including six times in January. The Albany area tied a record for the coldest average daily temperature with 3 degrees on Jan. 6, equaling a record set in 1918.

But there aren’t many who need statistics from a meteorologist to tell them how cold it’s been this winter. For most homeowners, their utility bill says it all.

“Everybody I know has had higher National Grid bills than they’ve ever seen,” said Maria LaTorre of Glenville, one of many shocked by the sudden increase in her monthly utility cost over the past two months.

LaTorre’s home relies primarily on natural gas and has many of the latest energy-saving devices. Still, she ended up with a $330 utility bill in January, with $180 of that cost coming from her electricity usage — a spike that finally made installing solar panels on her home seem financially viable.

“It’s so much higher than normal,” said LaTorre, who has lived in the home for more than a decade.

The cost increase has spurred pronounced grumbling from National Grid’s 1.3 million base of customers upstate. Spokesman Patrick Stella said a lot of customers are calling with questions and complaints about their bills.

“And we’re trying to work with them the best we can,” he said.

The cost increase has little to do with costs imposed by National Grid. Stella said less than half of every utility bill goes to National Grid, with the rest paying for power that is generated by other companies far outside the Capital Region and then transmitted to the area.

While natural gas costs for consumers have remained flat, the price for energy generating companies has spiked. Stella said the natural gas market has skyrocketed as a result of the harsh winter throughout the eastern seaboard.

“It’s one thing when it’s a bad winter just in the Northeast,” he said. “It’s another thing when it stretches all the way down to Georgia.”

Electricity isn’t the only utility seeing an increase. The cost of heating oil has steadily climbed throughout the winter, as consumers seek additional deliveries and area supplies dwindle.

The average price of heating oil was at $4.22 per gallon last week, up 2.3 percent over the same period last year, according to figures released by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. This upward trend has continued since mid-January, with the price of oil remaining consistently higher over what it cost last year at this time.

These spikes accentuate why Buhrmaster Energy Group implores customers to join a prepaid or monthly budget plan, said James Buhrmaster, the company’s president. Around 85 percent of his customers have fixed plans, so they aren’t at the mercy of the commodity markets when the temperature plummets.

And while Buhrmaster hasn’t run short on supply, he said some smaller companies have. He said those who didn’t plan ahead are facing a trying time as winter drags on.

“Supply has gotten tight for all forms of energy,” he said.

The lingering winter weather even prompted the federal government to respond to ease the burden of energy costs on low-income households. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released $454 million to assist home energy assistance programs across the country, including $50.6 million to New York alone.

The added assistance brought the state total to $366.8 million for the season. More than 1.3 million households across New York have sought assistance with their energy bills, according to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which oversees the program.

“No New York family should ever be left in the cold,” U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said after the funding was released. “But with bitter cold temperatures and rising energy costs, families and seniors who are struggling in this tough economy can’t afford to heat their homes. This funding is a lifeline for New Yorkers who rely on it so they can stay warm this winter.”

Even more traditional methods of heating have been taxed by the harsh winter. Many companies that sell seasoned firewood are finding their supplies dwindling or exhausted.

Mark Zyskowski, the owner of Ace Tree Care in Rotterdam, went into the winter with 50 cords of wood cut and dried for customers. The amount is usually enough for him to get through the season with a little left over.

“About two weeks ago, I ran out,” he said.

Zyskowski has more logs and could have conceivably replenished his supply. That was until the 10-day thaw in January, the massive snow storms in early February and then the short respite from the cold two weeks ago, the logs would take too long to dry out even if he did cut them.

“There’s no sense bothering at this point,” he said.

 
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