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Higher energy bills to follow January cold

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JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
Matt Weber makes sure his son Nils, age 2, is bundled up snuggly for play at Freedom Park on Wednesday.

Weathering this month’s cold snaps won’t be cheap for Charlotte residents, who are likely to open sharply higher energy bills.

Utilities say they can’t estimate how much January bills will go up. But it’s a pick-your-poison proposition, with heating bills for electricity, natural gas and propane use all likely to rise.

A term called heating degree days relates cold weather to energy demand. Through Tuesday, Charlotte’s heating degree days were 52 percent higher than in January 2013 and 6 percent above the long-term norm.

Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves Charlotte, set a winter record for energy demand on Jan. 7 as the temperature plunged to a 20-year low of 6 degrees. Customers used 20,246 megawatt-hours of electricity in an hour that morning, breaking a record set in December 2010.

Duke’s typical residential customers used 1,700 kilowatt-hours of electricity that cold December. The average use is 1,000 kwh in months that don’t require lots of heating or cooling, with a bill of about $110.

Piedmont Natural Gas also set a single-day record for gas delivery Jan. 7, bursting the old milestone by 30 percent.

Piedmont partly offset customers’ costs of higher gas use Wednesday by asking Carolinas utilities commissions to reduce its rates. The lower rates, reflecting falling wholesale gas costs, would shave $4 to $6 off most household bills in February and March.

The cold wave underway across the Carolinas might turn out to be the longest in several years.

Heavy snow fell Wednesday in North Carolina’s mountains, with 8 inches reported at Beech Mountain, and about a half-inch in Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh.

The National Weather Service expects a low of 18 degrees Thursday morning, with highs struggling only into the mid-30s. Friday will bring another shot of cold, with an overnight low of 13 and high temperatures in the low 30s.

Yet another blast of cold weather will arrive next Monday or Tuesday, forecasters say, after temperatures recover a bit over the weekend.

Power outages could occur in Duke Energy’s territory, said spokeswoman Paige Layne. Duke advises customers to open window shades on sunny days, turn down thermostats and wear more clothes indoors to lower their energy bills.

A confluence of events that began last October, meanwhile, has put a squeeze on the availability of propane gas in the thick of winter. Many rural residents use propane to heat their homes.

Supplies are stretched hardest in the bitter-cold Midwest and Northeast. North Carolina, the second-largest user of propane in the nation, is struggling to help supply gas to those regions.

“They just can’t get enough gas to get them current, so they get gas wherever they can,” said John Jessup, executive director of the N.C. Propane Gas Association.

Residential propane prices, nationally, have jumped from less than $2.40 a gallon to more than $2.80 since October. Jessup said he can’t predict what North Carolina prices will do.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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