"Since December, cold snaps triggered by the polar vortex have led to record demand for natural gas," said Sandra James, spokesperson for National Fuel. "The bigger the difference between the temperature outside and the thermostat setting inside, the harder your heating system will work and the more energy it will use, even if you don't turn the thermostat higher."
Bitter cold temperatures accompanied by ice and snow have led to widespread school and business closings in many areas across Northwestern Pennsylvania, prompting local families to remain home during periods when they might otherwise adjust their thermostats downward.
"Customer heating bills will be higher this winter because consumption, or customer usage, of natural gas to heat homes has been higher than in the previous two winters, which were warmer than normal," James said. "Weather can have a substantial impact on a homeowner's heating bill, and with this year's extreme, prolonged cold, it takes considerably more energy to maintain the comfort we are used to. More energy translates into higher bills."
This winter has been one for the record books for extreme and prolonged cold and gas usage. According to National Fuel's records for Erie, Pa., Jan. 7th was the "peak day of natural gas usage" which is the highest single peak day since the winter of 1996-1997. The high temperature of 4 degrees and the low of -10 degrees was the coldest day in a frigid month, and gas usage was 80 percent higher than an average January day.
National Fuel customers were somewhat insulated from price increases as more than half of the gas purchased this winter to heat their homes was based on summer and forward pricing strategies, the majority of which was placed into nearby, underground natural gas storage facilities. Through its gas management plan, the Utility purchases natural gas at the best possible cost while ensuring security of supply and reliability of delivery. The Utility has a variety of natural gas supply sources and uses a combination of proven methods that allow tremendous flexibility to adjust purchases -- including forward pricing, monthly pricing, spot pricing, basin diversity and the use of underground storage.
Another advantage for National Fuel customers is the northwest Pennsylvania service territory is close to domestic supply areas with ample and growing natural gas production, including the Marcellus Shale region in nearby counties. National Fuel has enough pipeline capacity to deliver the gas reliably and consistently in the frigid weather. Ready access to natural gas benefits customers too as it remains the lowest-cost home heating fuel compared to commonly-used alternatives like propane or oil.
"Regionally, we are in a great spot from the pipeline capacity to natural gas production as nearly all of the gas being consumed by our Utility customer this winter is coming from Pennsylvania's shale regions. As a result, we have not been forced to make purchases at some of the dramatic gas pricing levels experienced by cities along the East Coast and even into Canada during the past 6 weeks. Equally important, our system is operating as planned as we continue to meet the needs even during the coldest of weather," James said.
The prospect of higher heating bills stemming from the coldest sustained temperatures in years has triggered interest in National Fuel's budget plan billing as well as available payment assistance plans. The budget plan provides a way for customers to have level, predictable monthly gas payments, stabilizing the monthly heating bill for the year. All assistance program information is available at www.nationalfuelgas.com or by contacting customer service at 1-800-365-3234.
The Utility encourages its customers to contact a customer assistance representative to discuss their personal situation and to check if they qualify for assistance or various payment options. As well, information is available on the Utility's website at www.nationalfuelgas.com.
"We realize that any bill increase can affect our customers and their ability to pay their monthly heating bills." said James. "We have numerous programs available to help individuals who struggle to make payments."
The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is contingent on available federal monies and could be closing soon as funding is dwindling. This program accepts applications based on income guidelines, and funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. For additional information, visit www.LIHEAPhelps.com or www.compass.state.pa.us. A call or visit can be made to your local county assistance office with telephone numbers and addresses available on National Fuel's website.
A quick call to customer service can provide information on the following programs: Neighbor For Neighbor Heat Fund is open year round and helps qualified customers aged 55 years or older, or customers that have a certified medical condition, or are disabled, or are currently receiving unemployment benefits to prevent an energy emergency; Low-Income Residential Assistance Program offers stable bills, reduced rates and debt forgiveness; a Deferred Payment Agreement allows for the potential to negotiate a repayment plan in the event of a problem or special circumstance; Special Protection Program is applicable for households where residents are aged 62 years or older, blind or disabled.
With the weather being far from normal and two more months before the close of the winter heating season, natural gas customers should expect an increase in their heating bills this winter.
Copyright 2016 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.