Heating costs could surge again this winter

Wisconsinites should do what they can to plan and prepare for higher heating costs again this winter.

A new outlook for winter heating costs from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) is forecasting that heating bills could go up by hundreds of dollars or more for a typical household, on top of a similar increase last winter.

According to NEADA a typical household with natural gas heating will pay $925 this winter, up $243 or 34% from last winter if energy use is the same. The increase is even more dramatic from two winters ago, with the new forecast showing bills could be up $379, or 66%, from the winter of 2020-21.

The price of natural gas has been high all year, including the summer months when utilities buy and store natural gas for use later when the weather turns cold.

That, coupled with other market dynamics, has driven the price of natural gas to levels that haven’t been seen in almost 15 years.

When natural gas prices were more stable winter heating costs averaged just under $550 for six straight years, but the latest outlook shows they could be $400 higher this winter.

The state Public Service Commission allows natural gas utilities to recover the cost of their equipment, such as mains and meters, but the price of the gas itself is not regulated by the PSC nor by the federal government. Those prices rise and fall based on supply and demand. CUB focuses much of its advocacy on the electric side of utility costs where we have more impact keeping increases in check.

Even though Wisconsin utilities haven’t released official heating cost outlooks for the upcoming winter, CUB flagged the higher cost as an issue of concern during recent episodes of the CUB podcast and on CUB’s outreach webinars.

CUB has several outreach events planned to help consumers and small businesses prepare themselves.

CUB is hosting a webinar for residential customers, “Action Steps You Can Take to Use Less Energy,” at noon Thursday. The webinar will feature an expert from the state Focus on Energy program. Register here to attend.

In addition, CUB is offering a series of small business webinars in October during Energy Awareness Month. More details are here.

Customers who are struggling financially are eligible for energy assistance. Congress has appropriated more money this year to help homeowners and renters who are behind on their utility bills. Wisconsin has rental and mortgage assistance programs to help consumers.

CUB urges customers to take advantage of Focus on Energy rebates that can help homeowners and renters save this winter if they add some insulation before the cold snaps hit. The Focus on Energy Marketplace currently has discounts on smart thermostats, LED bulbs and smart thermostats. Utility customers can also receive a free Energy Saving kit from Focus on Energy.

Here are some tips to consider if you have some money to spend to make some upgrades:

  • Add more insulation or upgrade your furnace. Add extra insulation to make your home more comfortable and efficient. Focus on Energy has incentives available for attic insulation and air sealing. Plus, Focus offers heating and cooling rebates if you’re looking to upgrade your equipment to a more efficient unit. Some utilities, such as Xcel Energy, offer enhanced incentives to bring down the cost even further.
  • Consider getting an energy audit to identify opportunities to make your home more energy efficient and comfortable. This is especially helpful if your home feels drafty or your energy bills seem higher than average. Focus on Energy trade allies can help with you by coming out to perform a home energy assessment. Find a trade ally near you.
  • Adjust your thermostat to match the changing temperatures. When you need to turn the heat on, set the thermostat to 68 degrees and turn it down further when you are asleep or away. Adjust a degree at a time as necessary to balance comfort and energy savings.
  • Service your furnace or boiler now to make sure it runs efficiently as the weather starts to cool down. Regularly replace furnace filters to keep your furnace running efficiently. Some utilities offer additional incentives to have your furnace serviced.
  • Take advantage of the sun. On cool days, open your curtains and blinds throughout the day to allow sunlight to naturally heat your home. Close curtains when the sun goes down to keep heat from leaking through your windows. Consider adding energy-saving thermal insulation curtains.
  • Cook and bake efficiently. Use lids on pots and pans to reduce cooking time. Bake multiple things at once. Use crockpots and microwaves to save energy.
  • Keep refrigerators and freezers full but not crowded. If your refrigerator or freezer is empty, fill milk jugs with water to fill up space, and throw out old food if your refrigerator or freezer is too full. Unplugging that second refrigerator or freezer can help you save.
  • Inspect and clean your fireplace. Make sure your fireplace is safe before using. Close fireplace dampers when you are not using the fireplace to prevent heat from escaping.
  • Turn off electronics not in use. Electronics that are not being used should be turned off completely to save energy, particularly for televisions, game consoles and home offices.  A great idea for TVs, DVD’s and game consoles as well as home office equipment is to plug into power strips and turn the power strip off.