Natural gas and propane prices are 50 to 75 percent higher this summer than one year ago. This is a foreboding figure heading into the winter season because it means higher utility bills for consumers.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, government agencies and utility service providers met in Jefferson City this week to discuss increasing heating costs and its impact on low-income families. Experts fear a repeat of the 2000 heating season, when frigid temperatures resulted in Missouri's coldest November and December in recorded U.S. history and 40 to 50 percent higher residential heating bills.
"If we have extraordinary cold weather that brings up usage, we could see a repeat of the 2000 -- 2001 situation. We've addressed it as a 'perfect storm' in which we may see a convergence of problems," said Warren Wood, energy department manager of the Missouri Public Service Commission.
A weak supply of natural gas and propane will likely lead to increased costs for utility customers. Kerry Cordray, spokesperson for the department, said about 13 percent of Missouri homes are heated by propane, 58 percent are heated by natural gas and 25 percent are heated by electricity. Wood, fuel oil, solar and coal heat account for the other 4 percent.
Both natural gas and propane tend to follow similar trends in production and availability.
Missouri has very little production capability of natural gas. Anita Randolph, director of the Department of Natural Resources' Missouri Energy Center, said although the supply of propane improved in early August, the country has limited ability to produce the gas and many storage fields in the U.S. are depleted. Typically, the demand grows faster than the supply.
Tuesday's meeting focused on two ways to help low-income families prepare for the expected increase in utility bills. The department is urging Missourians to weatherize their homes and make them more energy efficient.
The department offered suggestions, which include: lowering the thermostat on water heaters to 120 degrees; cleaning or replacing air filters once a month; insulating and sealing ducts; and turning down the thermostat. State officials said consumers can save 1 percent for each degree they turn down their thermostat during and eight hour period.
Weatherization is a long-term solution to high utility costs. Because home improvements are made, they last for the duration of the home and can increase property values as well.
The department offers low-income weatherization assistance through the Central Missouri Counties Human Development Corp. Low-income families, especially the elderly, physically disadvantaged, and families with small children are eligible for assistance.
U.S. Department of Energy studies report the cost-benefit ratio of energy reduction as $1.83 for each dollar invested in weatherization.
A federal block grant called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is available through local agencies. It provides a once a year payment to help with high heating costs. The amount of the grant is based on the size, income and fuel source of the household, as well as the location of the household. Prices vary for northern and southern counties.
"We face a difficult winter, but the good news it, we're learning about it in time to do something about it," said Randolph.