If last week’s arctic freeze took your breath away, wait until you see your utility bills.
Duke Energy expects overall electricity usage for the first week of 2018 – when temperatures in Charlotte were well below normal for eight days – to come in between 20 and 25 percent higher than normal. The cost of that surge in demand will be felt most by people who live in older homes with drafty crawl spaces, although newer energy-efficient homes will not go unpunished.
A household on PSNC Energy, the Triangle’s natural gas utility, could see bills increase $50 to $60 above a typical January bill of $130, said PSNC spokeswoman Persida Montanez. If the temperature is warmer than usual in the coming weeks, however, natural gas bills could balance out.
Duke Energy Carolinas set a new record for power use Friday, beating a previous all-time-high set Feb. 20, 2015. Duke Energy Carolinas, which has 2 million customers in the state, serves much of the western Carolinas including Charlotte.
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Based on the “polar vortex” of arctic air that chilled the Carolinas in 2014, Duke Energy Carolinas expects energy usage to go up 20 to 25 percent from this winter’s cold. Customer bills may see similar increases, spokeswoman Meghan Miles said, but actual changes will vary depending on how energy was used in customers’ homes and businesses.
Duke sends usage alerts based on data from smart meters to warn customers of how much energy they’re using and give them enough time in the billing cycle to adjust. High bill alerts are also available to warn customers when hotter or colder weather will drive bills 30 to 40 percent higher than usual.
Piedmont Natural Gas, which is also owned by Duke Energy and serves the Charlotte area, said it boosted output in the first week of January by more than 80 percent above customer demand one year ago. The company, with 650,000 residential customers in the state, attributed the huge difference to an unusually warm January last year, when households paid an average of $87 on that month’s bill. This January, Piedmont is projecting households will pay about $115 on average.
Piedmont’s Share the Warmth program lets customers automatically round up their monthly bills to the next dollar. The money is used to help needy people stay warm.
Duke Energy Progress, which sells power in the central and eastern part of the state, came within a shiver of setting a new usage record. But the electric company didn’t top the maximum power demand that its 1.3 million customers logged in February 2015. Both utilities are owned by Charlotte-based Duke Energy.
A typical Duke Energy residential customer, based on 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, pays about $105 a month for power.
The effect of frigid weather on individual bills can’t be predicted with precision. Utility bills are staggered, so for some people the first week of January will be spread out over two separate bills.
People who have poorly insulated homes, or very large homes, and those who set their thermostats high or use space heaters, will pay the heaviest price for keeping toasty.
Customers who are on equal billing plans pay the same amount every month and may have to be adjusted at the end of the year. Utility officials predict most customers will not be surprised by higher power bills.
“The impact on bills will vary depending on rates and how they use their energy,” said Duke spokeswoman Meredith Archie. “For the most part people understand with these cold temperatures they’re using more energy.”
PSNC Energy set an all-time high for natural gas usage. On Saturday its 560,000 customers used more gas than the utility’s previous record day, on Feb. 19, 2015.
All of North Carolina went cryogenic for eight days as polar conditions descended upon the East Coast. Raleigh, where temperatures are measured at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, dipped below zero Fahrenheit on New Year’s Eve and didn’t thaw out until Monday, an eight-day glacial feat matched only twice in recorded history, said Nick Petro, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Raleigh.
Bruce Henderson contributed.
Paying your utility bill
If you have trouble paying your bill, contact your utility company to discuss your situation. Utilities will typically work with customers by setting up installment plans and making other arrangements. Duke Energy, for example, provides financial support to local social services agencies that help customers pay their winter heating costs.
Duke Energy Progress refers customers who have trouble paying bills to the Utility Assistance Program through county social service agencies. More information is available through Careline at 800-662-7030.
Duke Energy Carolinas works with various partner agencies, which it list on its website.
If you have fallen behind on utility bills, your electric company and natural gas utility can disconnect service – but only under certain conditions.
Electric and gas utilities have to provide you a written notice 10 days before disconnecting your service for chronically delinquent bills. The notice will typically state how much you owe and will list steps you can take to avoid getting disconnected. Duke Energy doesn’t start the notification process until a customer has missed payments for two months in a row.
Utilities can’t disconnect the following classes of customers between Nov. 1 and March 31: disabled, aged 65 or older, or designated by a social services agency as qualifying for financial help under an energy assistance program. Utilities also can’t disconnect power on Fridays, weekends or state and federal holidays.
Duke Energy’s policy is not to disconnect power when the forecast is for freezing or subfreezing temperatures for at least 24 hours.
The legal restrictions on disconnects apply to Duke Energy, PSNC Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas, which are regulated by the N.C. Utilities Commission. If you are a customer of a rural electric corporations or a municipal power agency, then your service is overseen by the Rural Electrification Authority, a local co-op board or a town council; check your bill or the provider’s website for more information.
Customers of regulated utilities (Duke, Piedmont, PSNC) can file complaints or seek additional information from the Public Staff. The agency’s consumer services division can be reached at 866-380-9816 or 919-733-9277.
The state attorney general also handles complaints about utilities, and can be reached at 877-5-NO-SCAM, from outside the state at 991-716-6000, and in Spanish at 991-716-0058.
Complaints can be filed online with the Public Staff and N.C. attorney general.