Prepare for higher heating costs this winter

Brace yourselves for higher heating bills this winter, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin utilities and the Energy Information Administration are warning of higher heating costs this winter given natural gas prices that are twice what they were a year ago.

Depending on how severe the winter is, households could pay hundreds of dollars more this winter compared with last winter, when natural gas prices were much lower.

We Energies said its customers can expect an increase of $25 a month, and Wisconsin Public Service, based in Green Bay, warned that heating costs could be up $40 a month, during the winter, assuming normal weather. The cost for Xcel Energy customers may be even higher, at $45 to $65 a month. And the federal Energy Information Administration is also warning of much higher prices this winter, for the November-through-March heating season, for customers using natural gas or propane for heat.

The latest spot prices from the natural gas markets indicate that prices are much higher than they’ve been in years. And that’s on top of increases customers in Wisconsin are already seeing because of the cascading effects from the February winter storm that prompted homes across Texas to go without power for a week.

The impact of the winter storm Uri was felt as far away as the Upper Midwest because of spikes in natural gas prices caused by the sudden shutdown of natural gas pipeline infrastructure that hadn’t been properly winterized. Federal energy regulators last month urged utilities and natural gas pipeline operators to take steps to ensure that energy equipment is winterized.

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 market supply and demand conditions. CUB focuses much of its advocacy on the electric side of utility costs, because is able to have more impact there in keeping increases in check.

The surging prices come at a time when many Wisconsinites are still struggling as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. How high heating costs go will depend on several factors, especially how frigid the temperatures get and whether energy markets continue to see price spikes.

Prices have spiked in part because of a resurgence of economic activity and in part because of global conditions and increasing exports of natural gas.

Customers who are struggling financially are eligible for energy assistance, and 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, and both of those programs can help with utility bills for struggling customers.

Surging natural gas prices can also be expected to hit customers on the electricity side of their utility bills. The Public Service Commission will be finalizing cases in the months ahead that will set electric rates and fuel costs for the Wisconsin utilities for 2022. Natural gas prices affect these costs because of large power plants that burn natural gas to make electricity.

To the extent they can, customers should take steps now to plan for looming increases. In light of these increase, the time may be right to take a second look at whether to move ahead with a project to add insulation or upgrade to a more efficient furnace.

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. 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, and some cities, such as the City of Milwaukee through its Me2 program, 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 fridge and freezers full but not crowded. If your fridge or freezer is empty, fill milk jugs with water to fill up space, and throw out old food if your fridge or freezer is too full. Unplugging that second fridge 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.