Archive for Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Utility bills expected to climb this winter

October 12, 2004


It could be a long, cold, expensive winter in the Lawrence area.

Prices of natural gas and propane are on the upswing, making consumers and public assistance agencies nervous.

"It's very scary for people who are poor and barely making it," said Carlene Hadl, Lawrence, who recently was seeking help with her utility bills from ECKAN, 1 Riverfront Plaza.

Natural gas prices are expected to be from 20 to 25 percent higher than last year, according to Aquila officials. Propane also will increase slightly, possibly to as much as $1.50 per gallon, said Justin Holstin, executive vice president of Propane Marketers Association of Kansas. Prices are already in that range, while last year's early fall prices ranged from 90 cents to $1.10 a gallon.

Though there are a variety of reasons for the price increases, a big factor is the high cost of crude oil. The price of oil this month hit $53 per barrel on the world market.

"Propane is a product of natural gas and crude oil, so we track very closely with those two prices," Holstin said.

Other factors in propane pricing include transportation of the gas and how far it has to travel. There is no propane shortage, but some dealers in Kansas already have run out of the product and are shopping for more, Holstin said.

"I recommend that if you have the ability to go ahead and contract for the amount of propane you are going to use this winter, do it," Holstin said.

Factors behind the natural gas increases are: moderate gas storage levels, no appreciable increase in gas production despite the increased demand for gas-fired power generation, and increased consumer demand, according to Aquila.

Westar Energy Co. officials don't foresee any dramatic price increases for electrical usage this winter.

Both ECKAN and the Ballard Community Center, 708 Elm St., provide assistance to people facing difficulty paying their utility bills. The agencies receive funding from a variety of sources for utility bill assistance.

"It goes so quickly," Ballard resources director Paul Hunt said of the money available for assistance. "The last time, I gave it all out in 25 minutes."

The Ballard Center receives funding for utility assistance once a month, Hunt said. Although Hunt declined to say exactly how much the center received for assistance, he said it generally was enough to help four or five families. Checks are written by the center directly to the utility company, he said.

Hunt suggests people stay in touch with their utility company if they can't pay, instead of letting the bills pile up. "Most of the time they'll be willing to work with you if they can," he said.

Natural gas users worried about high bills should, indeed, contact their utility company office and get into a streamlined payment program, said Larissa Long, spokeswoman for Lawrence's Aquila office. The program allows a customer to be billed each month based on average use during the previous 12 months. That keeps the bills from dramatically spiking during high use periods, she said.

Meteorologists aren't sure yet what type of winter the Lawrence area will have. The National Weather Service cannot yet predict whether winter temperatures will be above or below normal.

The jet stream, the atmospheric winds that bring the Midwest its weather, doesn't start to show a winter pattern until November, 6News meteorologist Matt Sayers said.

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