If you’re a natural gas consumer who hasn’t checked your latest bill, prepare for a shock: It may be considerably higher than you expect.
This month, Nicor Gas customers will pay more than twice as much as in the same month last year. People’s Gas bills will be up by 92%, while North Shore Gas customers will see a 41% hike.
In other parts of the state, bills will jump as much as 206%, according to the Citizens Utility Board.
Consumer advocates warn customers may pay hundreds of additional dollars to heat their homes this winter. Citizens Utility Board spokesman Jim Chilsen said he worries the natural gas price spike could force some families to decide between paying rent or paying utility bills.
“Based on today’s rates and assuming the current monthly gas supply costs remain the same in February and March,” a typical residential customer who uses approximately 825 therms from November through March will pay about $770, said Nicor Gas spokeswoman Jennifer Golz.
Several factors contributed to higher bills, according to Chilsen and Golz. Among them are a surge in demand that accompanied the pandemic recovery, the impact of Hurricane Ida on gas production in the Gulf Coast, and severe storms last February that froze natural gas pipelines in Texas, thereby reducing the supply.
Chilsen also blames Nicor for “unreasonably aggressive spending.”
He points to the $240 million gas rate hike the company received.
“When you ask for three record increases in four years, that’s going to cause hardship for your customers,” he said.
As a regulated utility, the company does not profit from the sale of natural gas, Golz said.
“The price we pay for gas is passed on to our customers without markup,” she said.
Natural gas costs, which make up 50% to 60% of a customer’s annual bill, are determined by the market, she said.
But gas companies can profit from increased delivery rates, Chilsen said. Since 2018, such rate hikes totaled more than $500 million, he said.
Previously, “it was easier for companies to increase delivery rates without customers taking as much notice because the price of gas was low,” Chilsen said. “Now that the price of gas is going through the roof, (customers) are noticing the increase in bills.”
Golz said the recent rate increase request was “critical to the long-term safety and reliability of services” for Nicor’s 2.2 million residential, public sector and business customers in more than 650 Northern Illinois communities.
She said delivery charges, which account for 35% to 45% of a customer’s annual bill, cover operating and distribution costs and are reviewed by the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Golz also points out that suppliers typically offer assistance for customers in need. Last year Nicor directed more than $47 million in assistance through its Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, Percentage of Income Payment Plan, Sharing and Energy Aide programs, and Shield of Caring offered in cooperation with the Salvation Army.
CUB provides consumers online resources at cubhelpcenter.com.
“If you are struggling, do not hesitate to call the utility to ask about financial assistance,” said Chilsen. “Keep the lines of communication open.”
Gas: Watchdog blames ‘aggressive spending’; Nicor says it’s needed
Tips for keeping your heating bill in check
• Set the thermostat to 68 degrees when home and lower it seven to 10 degrees at night and when away. But don’t set the thermostat below 55 degrees, which could cause water pipes to freeze and burst.
• Replace air and furnace filters regularly, ideally every 60 to 90 days. A clean filter will allow the system to run more efficiently.
• Open window coverings during the day to allow sunlight to heat the home, then close curtains at night to reduce the chill from cold windows.
• Keep furniture, drapes, stuffed animals and other objects away from heating sources.
• Adjust timer controls and programmable thermostats. Some older thermostats may not have an internal clock and need to be adjusted manually.
• Buy energy-efficient furnaces and windows.
• Schedule yearly tuneups for your HVAC system to improve its efficiency and life span.
• Install a ceiling fan to warm the home in the winter and cool it in the summer.
• Add or upgrade insulation to keep your home warmer, ensuring your furnace runs less.
• Keep your HVAC ductwork sealed and insulated to improve your system’s energy efficiency.
• Use weatherstripping to save money and improve comfort by reducing drafts.
Sources: Citizens Utility Board, Nicor Gas, North Shore Gas