Why were heating bills so high this winter in the Northeast — and what can homeowners do about it in the future? This month, several senators, including Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, in addition to the New York State Public Service Commission, pushed for a full investigation into the reason that utility bills across the region rose so dramatically and without warning this winter.
Although many families expect incremental rises in energy costs each year, many were shocked when their bills this winter jumped by hundreds of dollars, with many utility customers paying as much as 60% more than the year previous. As a result, numerous families working on tight budgets have been unable to pay their bills. New York State residents alone owe an estimated $1 billion in overdue utility bills — and no one is exactly sure why prices rose so much, so quickly.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Energy Department reported that, nationwide, utility customers ended up paying $14 billion more than the year before. Although the Northeast was colder than usual — about 10% colder than temperature averages for the previous decade — it still does not quite account for such a drastic rise in cost.
Some suspect that energy companies have been intentionally raising rates in order to take advantage of homeowners who had few other options when faced with the sub-zero temperatures of the polar vortex that occurred earlier this year. As The Daily Gazette says in an op. ed. piece about the high utility prices: “If utilities in any way manipulated the markets to take advantage of the cold winter and generate higher profits, then the federal government needs to step in, punish the offenders.”
In the meantime, homeowners can attempt to cut down on heating costs in a variety of ways. Installing an automated thermostat that keeps temperatures down while homeowners are away can be one option. If a home’s HVAC system is very old, the energy efficiency savings possible with a new system might offset the cost of upgrading, as well.
“When not regularly maintained, even the best system can cost you. Depending on how you heat your home, simple items like clogged filters or minor burner adjustments can reduce your heating efficiency by up to 25%,” says Tom Casey, Owner of Climate Partners in Milford, CT. “Homeowners could save about $30/month on average by making sure their system is cleaned and serviced regularly.”