More assistance available with high heating bills at winter’s approach

PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL GRIDNational Grid workers familiarize themselves with gas transmission equipment at the company's Seneca Street training facility in Schenectady in March 2019. National Grid is predicting much higher gas bills for its customers this winter.
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PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL GRID
National Grid workers familiarize themselves with gas transmission equipment at the company's Seneca Street training facility in Schenectady in March 2019. National Grid is predicting much higher gas bills for its customers this winter.

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 home heating season.

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

Meanwhile, as nighttime temperatures start dropping below freezing on a regular basis, roughly one in seven residential customers already are more than 60 days behind in their payments to National Grid, the gas and electric utility that serves most of the Capital Region and Mohawk Valley.

THE FORECAST

Predicting heating costs is tricky, as politics, the economy and storms can push the prices of commodities like natural gas and heating oil up or down. Temperatures can be even more variable, and harder to predict.

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

National Grid in October made a public forecast for much-higher gas prices this season, then emailed upstate customers an even higher number in early November, then emailed them a somewhat lower number correcting the previous email, which contained the numbers for the downstate market.

“Right now, and this is based on the October forecast that we got at the beginning of November … over that five months customers will pay about $180 more than this year,” spokesman Patrick Stella said last week.

The current projected $651 natural gas bill for November 2021 through March 2022 is based on use of 713 therms of gas in those five months. Stella said 713 therms is a good typical number for a single-family housing unit but customers’ actual use will vary hugely, depending how big their home is, how energy-efficient it is, how warm they keep it and how cold the outside temperature is.

ASSISTANCE

Help is available, and there are many organizations offering it.

For those who can pay, just not all at once, National Grid and some heating fuel dealers offer budget plans that spread the winter heating bills over 12 months, smoothing out price spikes such as those happening now.

It also works with community support agencies such as Schenectady Community Action Program to reach people who need help and has consumer advocates at three offices in eastern New York.

For those who can’t pay, or can’t pay easily, government assistance is available.

One of the best-known vehicles is LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, more often known as  just HEAP. The federal program sends money to states; in New York it is administered through county social services departments.

It has been a busy season so far at the Schenectady County Department of Social Services since it began taking HEAP requests Oct. 1.

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

Grants are awarded until the funding runs out, she said, which happens 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.

MORE ASSISTANCE

The Biden Administration on Thursday announced annual funding for HEAP, typically $3 billion to $4 billion a year, would more than double for the 2021-2022 season with $4.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan, one of the federal stimulus packages passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

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

  • Proactively identify customers who might be eligible to receive assistance; 
  • Notify them of available assistance; 
  • Expedite the assistance to them; 
  • Not cut off service to those who have submitted applications for assistance.

National Grid already does all of these things, and its policy during cold weather is to not cut off gas or electricity to a residence for lack of payment.

Because of this, and because of a soon-to-expire state moratorium on cutoffs, National Grid now has the largest backlog in recent times of customers in arrears, 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 Thursday called on state, local and tribal governments to form action plans for effective distribution of the increased aid this winter.

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The same day, N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul launched a statewide campaign to raise awareness of assistance available to those who have trouble paying for their heating fuel.

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

Other help includes:

  • Assistance repairing or replacing heating equipment; 
  • One-time emergency HEAP benefits starting Jan. 3; 
  • Free energy audits; 
  • Rebates for purchase of heat pumps; 
  • Weatherization workshops that teach low-cost ways to make homes use less energy for heating and cooling; 
  • The Energy Affordability Policy, a utility bill discount for low-income customers that will be able to assist 95,000 more customers this winter because of a 184% budget increase.

CANNOT PAY

The price hikes being forecast this winter may amount to $1 or $2 a day, less than a name-brand cup of coffee. The presentation of this sum as a crisis highlights an underlying problem: Many Americans have trouble covering sudden increases in expenses.

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

And many of those who did make enough money to build such a fund chose instead to increase their discretionary spending.

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends everyone build such an emergency fund, however meager.

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

And a survey conducted for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors’ May 2021 report on the economic wellbeing of U.S. households found that more than 35% of families would not pay cash to cover an unexpected $400 expense. 

More importantly, over 25% of respondents said they could not pay an unexpected $400 bill, or could pay it just once.

THE WEATHER 

The weather is a key variable in any forecast of winter heating costs and a huge unknown. The planet is regularly setting records for warmth but individual regions and seasons can still get quite cold.

Heating degree days is the meteorological term for how much you’re likely to want to heat your home. It’s derived by calculating the mean temperature between the high and low on a given day and then subtracting the mean from 65 degrees.

So if the low was 20 and the high was 40, the mean temperature would be 30 degrees and that day would be rated at 35 heating degree days. Ten such days would yield 350 heating degree days.

At Albany International Airport, the mean so far this century has been 6,351 heating degree days per year. Seven of the last 10 years were on the warmer side of normal. 2020-2021 was a bit colder than normal.

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

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

PREDICTIONS

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

Here’s how National Grid fared on the previous six seasonal gas bill forecasts, with predicted cost of 713 therms on the left and actual cost 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 the gas itself; National Grid does not control the price of gas and does not make a profit on its sale. Its profit comes from its charges for delivering the gas.

The two pieces — the gas itself and the delivery of it — are presented separately on bills and in the annual heating season forecast.

Here’s how National Grid fared on its predictions for delivery costs, with predicted cost on the left and actual cost 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 notice it can, Stella said, even knowing that the forecasts are based on factors that change often, and sometimes significantly.

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

THE OTHER FUELS

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

  • Natural gas 60%
  • Electricity 16%
  • Fuel oil or kerosene 14%
  • Propane or bottled gas 6%
  • Wood 3%

The numbers are estimates, but they carry very low margins of error.

Percentages within individual counties vary significantly: Densely built Schenectady County has the largest percentage of homes heated with natural gas at 72%. 

But only 7% of homes burn natural gas in Schoharie County, where the small, dispersed population has few options for gas service. A greater percentage of households in Schoharie County burn wood (15%) or fuel oil (44%) than any 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 shaping up to be more costly for everyone.

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

  • Heating oil 49%
  • Kerosene 35%
  • Propane 29.3%

Electricity statewide was up 8.2% year over year in August 2021, NYSERDA said.

Wood pellet prices are up 6% in the Capital Region, NYSERDA said, but prices vary by content of pellets and location of sale.

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