By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun
5:25 PM EST, November 16, 2012
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said Friday that winter heating bills for its residential natural gas customers will likely rise 11 percent over last year due to colder weather — still low enough to be the second-cheapest winter of the past decade.
Natural gas costs remain at about the same level as last winter. But BGE expects this winter will be chillier, increasing usage and thus the total cost to households. The utility is forecasting a $9-a-month increase for the typical residential gas customer during the November-through-March heating season, compared with the year-earlier period.
The utility has about 650,000 natural gas customers.
"If the weather is colder than last year, then they could potentially — based on our forecast — see an increase in their bills," said Rob Gould, a spokesman for BGE. "But it would also be totally predicated on their individual usage. If we do see a colder winter and customers choose to manage their energy usage … then their bill will reflect that change."
BGE estimated its commodity price for natural gas at about 60 cents per therm, compared with 59 cents last winter.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the entire country — not just this region — will see a colder winter than last year, "which was really unseasonably warm," said Jonathan Cogan, a spokesman for the agency.
"We're looking for a return to something more normal," he said. "So we're expecting people are going to consume more gas."
BGE said residents can cut down on the amount they use by taking such measures as regularly changing their furnace's filter, having the furnace checked by a professional and weatherizing their home.
People anticipating difficulties affording the coming bills should act now to get help, Gould said. Residents can call Maryland's Department of Human Resources at 800-352-1446 to ask for energy assistance.
"The key there is not to wait until you're in crisis," Gould said.
Hank Greenberg, state director for AARP Maryland, said the likely increase in heating costs makes him glad that utilities didn't manage to get a $2 surcharge on every natural gas customer's bill passed in the last General Assembly session.
Utilities sought the surcharge to pay for infrastructure repairs. AARP Maryland opposed the measure, Greenberg said, because the regular rates are supposed to cover that cost, and because it was an "end run" around the state's utility regulator, which already had said no.
Greenberg doubts utilities have given up on the idea.
"We're anticipating that they're going to come back because they only lost by one vote," he said.
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