Local providers expect stable natural gas prices despite national forecasts

Despite a winter weather outlook that has national experts predicting higher home heating bills, Augusta’s natural gas providers expect fuel prices to hold steady as the days grow colder and nights get longer.

About half of all households nationwide use natural gas as their primary heating fuel, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects those residents will spend an average of $80 more this winter than last because of possible changes in weather patterns, fuel production and pipeline capacity.

That’s a cost increase of 13 percent.

“Forecasting is an extremely dangerous game,” said Randy Lewis, spokesman for Georgia Natural Gas, in a recent phone interview. “You can’t really predict whether we will have an incredibly cold and wet – or an unseasonably warm and mild – January and February.”

Forecasters at AccuWeather expect a mild start in the South to winter, which for calculating price forecasts, lasts through March.

Because of the warm start and a wholesale price that has been declining for much of the past decade, Lewis said, it appears prices will be relatively stable this year for the roughly 30,000 Georgia Natural Gas customers in the Augusta area.

During the early 2000s, Lewis said, the Georgia provider saw natural gas, which is bought in blocks known as dekatherms, trade on the wholesale market for $13 to $15 per unit. Now it’s going for $3.25 a block, which Lewis said is translating to homeowner contracts that are as low as 52 cents per therm, compared to $1.80 in 2006.

“Customers are seeing historically low prices compared to the last decade or so,” he said.

Natural gas prices are even beating those of propane, which is produced from its liquids.

The federal government estimates homeowners in the South will spend an average of $123, or 9 percent, more this winter than last on heating costs related to propane, which is used in about 5 percent of all households.

Heating oil, which is used in 6 percent of U.S. households and mostly in rural areas outside Augusta, is projected to cost homeowners an average of $46, or 2 percent less, this winter.

Simone McKinney, spokeswoman for SCANA Energy, which in Georgia has 460,000 customers, agreed with Lewis’ assessment that natural gas rates are generally stable. McKinney said SCANA does not release “segment breakdowns.”

“We’re not currently seeing much fluctuation up or down compared with last year,” she said in an e-mail.

Tips to keep your heating bill lower

PREPARING FOR WINTER

Kristie Benson, spokeswoman
for the Atlanta Gas Light Co., said
local customers can prepare for the winter heating season by doing the following:

• Install a programmable thermostat to allow for customizable temperatures in homes while at home or away.

• Inspect windows and doors for drafts. Use caulk or sealant to insulate areas.

• Open drapes and shades during the day to allow in sunlight.

• If you have a fireplace, remember to close the flue when it is not in use so that warm air does not escape.

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