This year’s cold, snowy winter will stagger Whatcom County residents when they see the increases on their home heating bills.
Cascade Natural Gas says 48,500 customers in its Bellingham district used 28 percent more natural gas last month than they used in January 2016, according to spokesman Mark Hanson.
In Whatcom County, residents heat their homes using three main sources of energy: 44 percent use natural gas, 38 percent use electricity and 10 percent use propane, according to 2015 census data.
Natural gas costs down
Luckily for natural gas customers, the cost of natural gas is “down significantly over the previous heating season,” Hanson wrote in an email. In September 2015, natural gas prices decreased by 13.8 percent, according to a news release from Cascade Natural Gas.
“Cascade’s average residential customer … will pay $7.26 less for a total bill of $43.46,” the release read.
Costs are way higher because it’s been way colder. Consumption is way up from years prior. … It’s been, for months and months, just so much colder. There have been 25 days below freezing.
Steve VanderYacht, general manager of Northwest Propane
The last time Ben Pelkey, the manager of the Energy Advisor team at Puget Sound Energy, felt a winter this cold in Bellingham was in 2013. Before that, it was 2008.
This January, the average daytime temperature was 38 degrees, compared with 41 degrees in January 2016. Even those three degrees make a big difference at the end of the month, Pelkey said.
Three degrees hurt
“Every degree the temperature falls can cause a 2 to 10 percent increase” in power usage, Pelkey said. “Those three degrees could literally be a 30 percent increase on your bill.”
An average Bellingham home that uses propane used to cost about $250 per month to heat, said Steve VanderYacht, the general manager of Northwest Propane. This winter, he estimates his customers are seeing bills at least a third higher than that amount.
“Costs are way higher because it’s been way colder,” VanderYacht said. “Consumption is way up from years prior. … It’s been, for months and months, just so much colder. There have been 25 days below freezing.”
Propane costs up
Propane costs on average about $2.36 per gallon. But the cost of propane is up about 50 cents per gallon from last year, VanderYacht said, which makes billing even more painful for Whatcom County residents. “We’ve had winters like this, but it’s been a long time,” he said.
VanderYacht said he’s already heard some customer concerns about billing. Northwest Propane gets calls every month from people who struggle to pay their bills, and he’s waiting on the next round as soon as January bills are sent out in the next few days.
Northwest Propane offers payment plans, including year-round level pay, which allows customers to pay the same rate every month instead of lower rates in the summer months and higher rates during the winter.
Opportunity Council aid
The Opportunity Council in Whatcom County also provides funds for those who can’t pay their bills every month, and “quite a few people fall under” those qualifications, VanderYacht said.
“We definitely try to work with people,” VanderYacht said. “Sometimes we’ll even say, ‘If you can’t pay one month, can you do it in three?’”
Puget Sound Energy and Cascade Natural Gas also offer budget payment plans to level out energy costs over the course of a year. Cascade Natural Gas recommends low-income Whatcom County residents apply for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps eligible customers pay part of their natural gas bills.
Pelkey said Puget Sound Energy’s 43,000 customers can monitor their energy usage profiles on PSE’s website to see how temperatures are affecting their bills on a day-to-day basis.
Above all, Pelkey recommends customers who struggle to pay their bills should try to cut back on their energy usage.
“We advise they turn the thermostat down as much as they can while maintaining some level of comfort,” he said.
How to conserve
Northwest Propane’s Steve VanderYacht:
- When you leave, turn down the heat and close drapes or blinds to create better insulation.
- At night, turn the heat down. More blankets, less heat.
PSE’s Ben Pelkey:
- Maintain your heating system and make sure to change furnace filters. Make sure the system is free of debris and dust, operating as efficiently as possible.
- Insulate your home with “air sealing weatherization” such as caulking and weatherstripping.
- Walk around your house and feel for drafts around windows and doors. Take steps to seal those up.
Cascade Natural Gas:
- Insulate attics, walls and floors.
- Insulate around ducts and hot water pipes.
- Clean, tune and repair heating and cooling systems.
- Replace older systems with high-efficiency natural gas furnaces and water heaters.