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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

More help available with high heating bills as winter arrives – The Daily Gazette

SCHENECTADY — The state and federal governments last week announced expanded efforts to help people struggling to pay for heating fuel in what is expected to be an expensive domestic heating season.

Natural gas, heating oil, propane and kerosene prices are now much higher than in November 2020. Electricity and wood pellet prices are also high, though not from the radical boom seen with some other fuels.

Meanwhile, as nighttime temperatures begin to drop below freezing on a regular basis, nearly one in seven residential customers is already more than 60 days behind in paying to National Grid, the gas and electricity utility, Serves most of the Capital Region and the Mohawk Valley.

Forecast

Heating costs are difficult to predict, as politics, the economy, and storms can push the prices of commodities such as natural gas and heating oil up or down. Temperatures can be even more variable, and can be harder to predict.

Natural gas-burning systems are the most common source of heat in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metropolitan area, found in about three out of five homes.

In October National Grid made a public forecast for very high gas prices this season, then emailed an even higher number of customers in early November, then emailed them a smaller number, correcting the previous email, That included numbers for the downstate market.

Spokesman Patrick Stella said last week, “Right now, and that’s based on the October forecast we got in early November…

The current estimated $651 natural gas bill for November 2021 to March 2022 is based on 713 thermos gas uses in those five months. Stella said 713 thermos is a good typical number for a single-family housing unit, but customers’ actual use will vary greatly, depending on how big their home is, how energy-efficient it is, How warm is it keeping it and how cold is the outside temperature.

Help

Help is available, and many organizations are providing it.

For those who can pay, National Grid and some heating fuel dealers offer budget plans that spread winter heating bills over 12 months, with price increases like they’re happening now.

It also works with community support agencies like the Schenectady Community Action Program to reach people who need help and has consumer advocates in three offices in East New York.

For those who cannot, or simply cannot, pay, government assistance is available.

One of the most well-known vehicles is LIHEAP, a low-income home energy assistance program, often referred to simply as HEAP. The federal program sends money to the states; In New York it is administered through county social services departments.

The Schenectady County Department of Social Services has had a busy season so far since it began taking HEAP requests on October 1.

“We’ve seen a 68% increase in the volume of HEAP applications this year compared to last year,” spokeswoman Erin Roberts said on Wednesday. “We believe this increase is related to the pandemic and rising utilities costs.”

Grants are granted until the end of the year, she said, which is in March most years. Applications are being accepted in person or by mail at 797 Broadway in Schenectady or online at www.mybenefits.ny.gov.

further assistance

The Biden administration on Thursday announced annual funding for HEAP, typically $3 billion to $4 billion a year, would more than double with $4.5 billion from the US rescue plan for the 2021-2022 season, according to federal stimulus packages. Passed in response to one of the covid 19 pandemic.

It also freed up other funding streams used to help people pay their utility bills.

The White House also announced commitments from National Grid and six other utilities:

  • proactively identify customers who may be eligible to receive assistance;
  • inform them of available assistance;
  • expedite their assistance;
  • Those who have submitted applications for assistance will not be cut in service.

National Grid already does all of these things, and its policy in cold weather is not to cut gas or electricity to a dwelling because of a lack of payment.

Because of this, and because of the soon-ending state moratorium on cutoffs, National Grid now has the largest backlog of outstanding customers in recent times, Stella said.

As of October, 239,320 of National Grid’s 1.6 million upstate residential customers were more than 60 days behind on a combined $383.4 million in bills, Public Service Commission filings indicate.

Biden’s announcement on Thursday called on state, local and tribal governments to create action plans for the effective distribution of increased aid this winter.

That same day, NY Gov. Kathy Hochul launched a statewide campaign to raise awareness of the help available to people who have trouble paying for their heating fuel.

Of course the campaign highlights HEAP, which provides up to $751 per household depending on income, family size, and method of heating.

Other assistance includes:

  • Assistance in repair or replacement of heating equipment;
  • One-time emergency HEAP benefits starting Jan. 3;
  • free energy audit;
  • discounts for the purchase of heat pumps;
  • weatherization workshops that teach low-cost ways to use less energy to heat and cool homes;
  • Energy Affordability Policy, a utility bill discount for low-income customers that will be able to help 95,000 more customers this winter due to an 184% budget increase.

can’t pay

This winter it is estimated that the price hike could be $1 or $2 a day, which is less than a name-brand cup of coffee. The presentation of this amount as a crisis highlights an underlying problem: Many Americans have trouble covering a sudden increase in expenses.

Even before the COVID pandemic devastated the income and spending patterns of many American families, some didn’t make enough money to save up an emergency fund for unexpected costs.

And of those who made enough money to create such a fund, many chose instead to increase their discretionary spending.

The US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends everyone build such an emergency fund, although it is very rare.

Countless other advisors recommend saving enough to cover three to six months’ worth of expenses, or setting aside 20% of earnings as savings.

And a poll conducted for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors’ May 2021 report on the economic well-being of American households found that more than 35% of households would not pay cash to cover an unexpected $400 expense.

More importantly, more than 25% of respondents said they could not pay the $400 bill unexpectedly, or could only pay it once.

Season

Weather is an important variable in any forecast of winter heating costs and a vast unknown. The planet is regularly setting records for heat but isolated regions and seasons can still be quite cold.

Heat degree day is the meteorological term for how hot you want your home to be. This is obtained by calculating the mean temperature between the high and low of a given day and then subtracting the mean from 65 degrees.

So if the low was 20 and the high was 40, the average temperature would be 30 degrees and that day would be rated on 35 heating degree days. In such ten days, 350 thermal degree days will be obtained.

At Albany International Airport, the average so far this century has been 6,351 heating degree days per year. Seven of the last 10 years were warmer than usual. 2020-2021 was slightly cooler than normal.

In its broad winter forecast last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 40-50% chance that this part of New York state will be warmer than normal from December 2021 to February 2022.

So far this month, a typical number of heating degree days have been recorded at Albany International Airport: 428 from November 1-19. The average so far this century is 429 for the same period.

predictions

National Grid’s gas heating cost estimates have been very accurate in some years and off-base in others.

Here’s how National Grid fared on the last six seasonal gas bill forecasts, with estimated costs of 713 therms on the left and actual costs on the right:

  • 2015-2016: $244/$217
  • 2016-2017: $223/$250
  • 2017-2018: $280/$291
  • 2018-2019: $254/$318
  • 2019-2020: $219/$205
  • 2020-2021: $228/$212

Those dollar figures are for gas only; National Grid does not control the price of gas and does not make a profit on its sale. Its profit comes from its fee for delivering the gas.

Two pieces – the gas itself and its delivery – are presented separately on bills and in forecasts for the annual heating season.

Here’s how National Grid performed on its forecasts for delivery cost, with projected costs on the left and actual costs on the right:

  • 2015-2016: $258/$249
  • 2016-2017: $240/$240
  • 2017-2018: $247/$247
  • 2018-2019: $256/$250
  • 2019-2020: $262/$261
  • 2020-2021: $285/$284

National Grid offers these forecasts because it needs to give its customers the best advance information possible, Stella said, even knowing that forecasts are often based on changing factors, and sometimes— sometimes significantly.

The US Energy Information Administration provides its own set of predictions on winter heating costs but they are not specific to individual regions within states.

other fuel

The US Census Bureau reports the following percentages of fuel used to heat homes in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metropolitan area:

  • natural gas 60%
  • power 16%
  • fuel oil or kerosene 14%
  • propane or bottled gas 6%
  • wood 3%

The numbers are approximate, but there is little chance of error.

Percentages vary greatly within different counties: densely built Schenectady County has the largest percentage of natural gas-heated homes at 72%.

But only 7% of homes burn natural gas in Shohri County, where the small, scattered population has few options for gas service. A greater percentage of households in Shohri County burn wood (15%) or fuel oil (44%) than any other nearby county.

Except for those who harvest their own firewood, or use solar heating (barely more than 500 homes in the metro area), heating this winter is getting more expensive for everyone.

As of last week, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority reported the following price increases in the capital region from November 2020 to November 2021:

  • Heating Oil 49%
  • Kerosene 35%
  • propane 29.3%

NYSERDA said electricity across the state grew 8.2% year over year in August 2021.

Prices of wood pellets are up 6% in the Capital Region, the NYSERDA said, but prices vary by the content of the pellets and the place of sale.

More from The Daily Gazette:

Categories: Business, News

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