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Winter’s big chill brings big energy bills

The weather took a turn into spring territory Tuesday, but many customers are getting their first glance at how much the subfreezing weather has cost them this winter as they open energy bills.

Caroline Allen, who works for Hospitality Logistics International in Charlotte, said the Piedmont Natural Gas bill to heat her 1,600-square-foot house increased from $160 in January to $267 for her bill due in March.

Event planner Laura Fowlkes said her Duke Energy bill jumped to $327 in February, compared with $74 in November, when winter’s worst still lay ahead.

“Outrageous,” Fowlkes said.

Higher energy usage spurred by this year’s long cold snap is driving the sharp increase.

A measure known as heating days relates the cold weather to demand for energy. Charlotte’s heating days in January were 49 percent higher this year than last, and 18 percent above the historical average.

Piedmont Natural Gas spokesman David Trusty said many customers are likely to see a “not insignificant” increase in their bills due to higher consumption. The company set a record for its highest single-day gas delivery in January.

But he said the company cut its rates slightly for bills starting this month. The price of natural gas has been declining for years because of higher production.

A Duke Energy spokeswoman said the company didn’t have the latest usage statistics compiled for January, since the department was behind because of the snowstorm’s effects. But Duke Energy said “favorable weather” compared with last year helped its revenue and profits jump in the fourth quarter.

PSNC Energy, which supplies natural gas to some areas around Charlotte, sent almost 32 percent more gas to customers in January than during the same month last year.

One fuel that has seen its price spike is propane, which many rural residents use to heat their houses. The average price for a gallon of propane in North Carolina was $4.15 as of Feb. 10, up from $3.18 a month earlier. A shortage of supply and increased demand drove the spike, but John Jessup, executive director of the North Carolina Propane Gas Association, said the spike should soon subside.

“We expect to see prices drop as fast as they went up,” he said.

Carol Hardison, CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, said the cold has brought in more people seeking help with utility bills. She said the group spent $449,000 in January helping with utility bills, up from $409,000 in December.

She said many businesses that were closed last week, such as restaurants and shops, have employees who don’t get paid time off. That compounds their problems paying utility bills.

“While we comfortably made snowmen, people were stuck at home using electricity, losing pay,” she said. “Weather emergencies can just really crush a person who’s living paycheck to paycheck.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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