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Winter heating costs could soar for natural gas customers

National Fuel is out with their supplier predictions for home heating costs for this upcoming winter, and their numbers are way up.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As we all prepare for the arrival of colder weather, Western New Yorkers are being warned to be prepared for sticker shock with their energy bills if they use natural gas to heat their homes.

National Fuel is out with their supplier predictions for home heating costs for this upcoming winter, and their numbers are way up.

You may think twice before adjusting the thermostat if you hear this from National Fuel spokesperson Karen Merkel: "Unfortunately, your natural gas bills is following the trend of pretty much every consumer expense, and product and winter heating season bills will be substantially higher than customers are used to paying."

RELATED: Gillibrand proposes bill that expands HEAP eligibility

National Fuel predicts the average natural gas residential customer will pay $1,023 this year from November through March. That's a 50 percent increase.

Last year's estimate was $714, which actually dropped a bit with a warmer than usual winter. 

2 On Your Side asked: "We have such a huge supply of natural gas. Why would the price go up so much? How do you help people understand that?

Merkel replied: "Well, they have to look at it. It's not just Western New York. Certainly it's the entire industry, and it's the entire world that impacts the supply cost of natural gas."

Factor in the Russian war in Ukraine and European countries cutting off Russia as a major natural gas producer for them, so the United States now exports more liquified natural gas via tankers to Europe.

Merkel added: "We saw a spike last year, and when you compare over the last two years, the supply costs of natural gas has more than doubled. So that's why bills are going to be substantially higher. I mean, the last time that our customers have seen bills this high was the winter of 2008-2009."

University at Buffalo professor Dr. Sayanti Mukherjee focuses on researching and modeling energy demand.

" A significant amount of electric power plants are fired by natural gas so they are highly interdependent," Dr. Mukherjee said.

In New York State, the push to drop fossil fuels such as coal leads to natural gas fired power plants like this one in Tonawanda now generating over 50 percent of our electricity. That's according to the New York Independent System Operator, which coordinates generation of electric power and distribution by utility companies. 

So with raising demand and prices, we now see something called energy poverty.

"Energy poverty is getting exposed in the U.S. It has been a widely used term in UK and European countries for long time, but we haven't focused on that in U.S.," Dr. Mukherjee said.       

National Fuel has some energy saving ideas and suggestions. 

"The first recommendation is to make sure home heating systems are operating efficiently and effectively to prevent wasted energy. Outdated heating and cooling systems and worn - out or not enough insulation can increase energy costs. Also, there are inexpensive ways for consumers to make their living spaces more energy efficient. The Company’s Conservation Incentive Program provides helpful tips to make a home more energy-efficient, thus using less energy to heat homes while cutting emissions in alignment with New York’s state energy goals. Tips can be found at www.fuelingtomorrowtoday.com/energy-sustainability-tips/tips-for-the-home/. Some common guidelines include:

Cutting back on air leaks to save as much as 10% on your monthly energy bill. Homeowners can use caulk or weather-stripping to seal leaks around floors, walls, ceilings, ducts, fireplaces, plumping, doors, windows, fans, vents, and electric outlets.    

  • Set thermostats between 65° and 70° during the winter, and at 58° when away from the house for more than a few hours. By turning your thermostat back 10°-15° for eight straight hours, you can save about 5%-15% a year on your heating bill — a savings of as much as 1% for each degree
  • Turn down thermostats automatically without sacrificing comfort by installing a programmable thermostat.
  • Change or clean furnace air filters once a month during the heating season. Furnaces consume less energy if they “breathe” more easily. Use the arrival of your natural gas bill as your reminder to change the filter
  • Warm air rises, so use registers to direct warm airflow across the floor.
  • Close vents and doors in unused rooms. Close dampers on unused fireplaces
  • Set your water heater to 120° or the medium temperature setting. Drain a quart of water from the bottom of your water heating tank every three months to remove sediment that can hamper the efficiency of your unit.
  • Insulate water heaters with insulation blankets in accordance with manufacturer’s guidelines.
  • Install water-flow restrictors in showerheads and faucets.
  • On sunny days, open curtains and blinds on windows that receive direct sunlight. Close them at night or on cloudy days to insulate against the cold air outside
  • If radiators are located near cold walls, place a sheet of aluminum foil between the radiator and the wall to reflect heat back into the room

Western New York customers have numerous payment assistance programs that can be tapped into to receive much-needed funds to pay their utility bill if they meet eligibility requirements.

Discounted-rate programs can keep bills at a more affordable rate and others forgive past-due amounts if the applicant pays the discounted rate on time each month. A State program is available for customers who receive other government assistance and provides complete balance forgiveness resulting from a COVID-19 pandemic hardship. Any customer needing assistance managing their energy bill should call National Fuel at 1.800.365.3534 or visit the utility’s website today at www.nationalfuel.com to get more information on the following programs: 

  • Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) – opening Nov. 1st, this federally-funded program provides significant help with energy bills with grants ranging from $400 - $476 for basic and additional $400 for emergency grants.
  • Bill Relief Program for NYS residential customers – A state energy bill forgiveness program for income-eligible customers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Residential customers receiving qualifying government assistant will receive a bill credit for unpaid balances for service billed through May 1, 2022. Customers must be enrolled in National Fuel’s Statewide Low-Income Program (SLIP) by Dec. 31, 2022, or have received a HEAP grant.
  • Neighbor for Neighbor Heat Fund – $500 grants help customers meet basic energy needs with any of the following situations: disabled, have a certified medical emergency, at least 55 years old, recently unemployed or a veteran.
  • Special Protections – safeguards exist for customers who live in households where all residents are 62 years or older, 18 years or younger or disabled.
  • Deferred Payment Plans – special arrangements can be made for a repayment plan based on individual financial circumstances.

National Fuel does recommend that customers use the Budget Plan for predictable, stable monthly payments by estimating usage over a 12-month period. This plan prevents seasonal billing swings and takes the guesswork out of planning for utility costs by allowing a customer to pay a set amount each month and receive alerts anytime the set amount is scheduled to change. Based on the current winter heating forecast, the monthly average residential customer bill on the Budget Plan would be approximately $130 a month, versus seasonal highs of $250-plus a month this winter.

Also the connected cost of electricity is going up. National Grid says expect another five dollars per month for its average Western New York customer and there could be maybe more with a bad winter.

We have no winter heating forecast so far from New York State Electric and Gas.     

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