Gas-heating cost stuns NY customersgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Gas-heating cost stuns area customers By KATY MOELLER Gazette Reporter
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- When her natural gas bill arrived in the mail this month, Diane Benson knew that it was going to be ugly. After all, she'd been duly forewarned by Niagara-Mohawk, which ran an extensive public awareness campaign starting last summer, that expected wholesale price jumps would be passed along to customers.
But, somehow, when she saw the actual amount of the bill - $240 - the reality of the price hikes really sunk in. Last year, with about the same usage, the bill was $160.
Ouch. So much for the budget plan, which is supposed to help insulate customers from spiking fuel costs by spreading payments evenly throughout the year.
"I mean $80 is $80 that could be going to something else," said Benson, a Latham resident who isn't sure what more her family can do to save money on their heating bill.
"I tell the kids to put an extra sweater on if they're chilly - not that our house is freezing. It's 65 [degrees] during the day, when we're away, and in the evening it's about 68 . . . when we go to bed, we turn it down to 60-62."
A cold start When the winter started off colder than normal, Niagara-Mohawk officials wondered if their projections of heating-bill increases would turn out to be too optimistic, said Nicholas Lyman, a Niagara Mohawk spokesman. The power company had warned customers to budget for an increase of as much as 55 percent over last year.
"As we entered the winter, the price of wholesale gas was at record high levels," Lyman said of a fourfold increase in price from the winter of 1999 to 2000, from $2.50 per decatherm of gas to about $10 per decatherm.
"Through the middle of January, we were running about 30 percent colder than a year ago. You add colder weather on top of the higher price itself and people's bills started going crazy."
The phone lines at Niagara Mohawk's customer service center lit up in early January, when the first big bills of the season arrived, but have since died down.
A resident who typically pays $650 for gas from November to April will pay about $1,000 this year, Lyman said.
Fortunately, the weather has moderated. Through the first week in March, the winter of 2000-01 is now considered 11 percent colder than last year. And, the price of natural gas has come down to about $5.50 per decatherm.
Heating bills aren't expected to be as high next year as they were this year, though they will still be higher than two years ago, Lyman said.
"This winter seems to have been an aberration," he said. There's always some back-and-forth fluctuation in the market, but it never has been as wild as it was this winter."
Even with price increases, gas heat is still less expensive than electric heat and about on par with home-heating oil.
Throughout the heating season, home-heating oil prices were high but stable this year, as compared with last year "when we had some real scary weeks" during cold snaps, said Thomas Collins of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
Home-heating oil is currently selling at about $1.37 per gallon right now, which compares with $1.42 per gallon at the end of last winter, Collins said.
"The temperature was pretty constant this winter, so despite the fact that eastern inventories were markedly low the price remained fairly steady from October through last week," Collins said.
Still, things have been tough for many this year.
Last week, Schenectady County Legislator Cristine Cioffi, D-Glenville, requested that the county look into the financial impact of giving residents in households earning $30,000 or less a $50 tax rebate for home heating expenses.
The county legislature granted seniors a one-time $50 rebate per household for this year's home heating bills due to rising energy costs.
Assemblyman Robert Prentiss, R-Colonie, who made relief from high heating costs part of his election campaign last year, said his constituents are hurting.
"We continue to be deluged with letters and mail, but I have to say this: It does not appear to be as much as a year ago," Prentiss said. "I probably would attribute that more to the fact that last year, in 2000, we had sub-zero temperatures and windchills, storms . . . blowing and blustery storms." Prentiss said he often hears about the problem of high heating bills when he talks to senior citizen groups.
"There's a forlornness, a feeling of hopelessness out there," he said. "It's been ingrained or pounded into our heads to expect higher bills. There's a forlornness and plaintiveness. People are saying, `Well, what's the use [in complaining]?' "
Prentiss has proposed abolishing the gross receipts tax - which he has dubbed "the home heat tax" - to help residents afford the higher cost of heating their homes. He says repeal of the tax would save the average resident $100 a year.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 18, 2001