Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Many Nashvillians could see lower heating bills this winter

Most Americans should get some relief on their heating bills this winter, including those in Nashville who heat with gas.
The price of natural gas, the fuel that supplies 70 percent of the nation's heat, is relatively low for the second year in a row.

Forecasters also predict a warmer winter across much of the country — especially in the Southeast, which suffered through a historically cold winter last year.

"In Tennessee, we're looking to see about a 5 percent reduction in heating bills over the course of the winter, which translates into about $5 to $6 a month per residential customer," said David Trusty, spokesman for Piedmont Natural Gas, which serves about 170,000 customers in Davidson and parts of Rutherford, Wilson, Williamson, Cheatham, Sumner and Robertson counties.

"That assumes a more normal winter than last year, which was about 12 percent colder than normal," Trusty said. "We're looking at two things driving that forecast — the wholesale cost of natural gas, which accounts for about two-thirds of the drop, and the rest from having a more normal weather pattern."

But those who rely on heating oil, and residents of the Pacific Northwest, may need to bundle up. Unlike natural gas, crude oil prices have risen sharply from their recession lows, pushing up the price of heating oil 16 percent over last year. And forecasters predict a cold and snowy winter in the Northwest.

Last winter, the nationwide average cost to heat a home from November to March was $978, down 6 percent from the previous winter, according to Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

The Energy Information Administration, a branch of the U.S. Energy Department, releases its outlook for heating fuel costs today.

One alarming statistic, though, is that despite mild weather, heating assistance officials say consumers' requests for help paying bills remains high because of stubbornly high unemployment.

Meanwhile, natural gas prices are $3.52 per thousand cubic feet and are expected to creep just above $4 on average, as the weather turns colder. While home heating costs are low compared with recent history, they are still 23 percent higher than they were five years ago.

"It's not enough to sink a middle-class family, but it is more alarming to them," Wolfe said.

Tennessean business writer G. Chambers Williams III contributed to this story.

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