Asbury Park Press

Get Ready For High Heating Bills

Asbury Park Press — Tuesday, August 19, 2008


TRENTON — The focus this summer has been on pain at the fuel pump.

But with fall right around the corner, New Jersey residents are beginning to worry about pain of another sort – heating bills, as news emerges of a gloomy outlook for natural gas, heating oil and electricity prices.

It's projected households in the Northeast region, which includes New Jersey, will spend between $170 and $740 more to heat their homes this winter than they did last winter, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Data shows the price hikes will affect electricity users the least and heating oil users the most.

The bleak forecast, coupled with the continuing high price of gasoline, has state energy officials and energy organizations bracing for an avalanche of people seeking help because they can't pay their heating bills.

"It's not just hurting low-income households now. It's hurting middle-income families," said Wende Nachman, director of the New Jersey Citizen Action Oil Group, which offers discounted heating oil prices to its members, who pay a fee.

"This summer we've been averaging 100 new members a month, which is very unusual. Usually, it's more like 15 new members all summer. But because prices have been so high a lot more people are worrying about how they're going to heat their home," Nachman said.

Right now, it costs about $4 per gallon for heating oil, which is down from previous months, Nachman said. But history has shown that the price rises when autumn rolls around, she said. According to the federal forecast, a gallon of heating oil will average $4.35 in the Northeast, or more than $1 higher than last winter. That adds up when one considers the average residential oil tank holds 275 gallons and typically has to be refilled over the course of the winter.

The outlook isn't much better on the natural gas front, where all four of the state's natural gas utilities – New Jersey Natural Gas Co., South Jersey Gas Co., PSE&G and Elizabethtown Gas Co. – have asked the state Board of Public Utilities for permission to boost their rates on Oct. 1 by as much as 22 percent, or an average of $32 a month.

Nearly 71 percent of the state's occupied housing units use natural gas for heat, while about 16 percent use heating oil and 11 percent electricity, according to 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Electric rates went up in June, and gas rates are likely going to go up in October," said Cheryl Stowell, spokeswoman for NJ SHARES, a nonprofit group that helps New Jersey residents who have fallen behind on their utility bills because of a temporary financial crisis.

The organization offers the only program in New Jersey that helps households with incomes above 175 percent of the federal poverty line pay their gas and electric bills, Stowell said. So far, eight of its 21 county offices have had to temporarily close this year because funds dried up due to the high number of applications, she said.

The group, which relies on donations and a mix of state and utilities funding, doesn't expect an influx of money until December, Stowell said.

The state Board of Public Utilities isn't blind to the energy challenge, said board Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso.

The BPU and other state agencies administer several programs that do everything from providing financial assistance to installing free energy efficient materials, with the help of federal funding and revenue from a societal benefits charge assessed to natural gas and electric bills, Fiordaliso said. But he conceded the programs are limited to low-income households below the federal poverty level and, aside from one federally funded initiative, don't assist heating oil users.

All residents are eligible for rebates when they buy energy efficient appliances, and some can get deep discounts on home energy audits aimed at improving heating efficiency, said Fiordaliso, who said the BPU has increased its efforts to promote energy efficiency and educate people on how to do it.

"There are unfortunately going to be a lot of households hurting this year," he said.

Fiordaliso said the BPU is reluctant to raise the societal benefits charge as a way to generate more income for heating assistance programs because of the effect it would have on businesses in the state. A similar surcharge put on refineries and heating oil suppliers would require legislative action, he said, since the BPU doesn't regulate the oil industry.

New Jersey Citizen Action Oil Group advocates a societal benefits charge that would specifically help heating oil users, but so far the issue hasn't moved forward, Nachman said. Even the federally funded initiative doesn't give households enough financial assistance to pay for the minimum delivery of 150 gallons of heating oil, Nachman stated.

"We've seen an increase in utility shutoffs, and we'll continue to see an increase," Stowell said.

The number of shutoffs grew from 18,630 to 24,823 from April 2007 to April 2008, according to the BPU. Utilities are barred from shutting off customers who didn't pay their bills for part of each winter, but restrictions lift in April.

"It's pretty scary out there right now," Stowell said.

Copyright 2008 Asbury Park Press

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