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Upstate residents should brace for high energy bills

Still reeling from a month that for many included frozen pipes and ice-slickened roads, Anderson-area residents will soon be hit with another element of harsh winters -- high energy bills. Regardless of the heat source, residents will pay more for staying warm this winter. The pain will be felt in the form of February bills, which reflect the January use.

"The No. 1 factor in the power bill is the thermostat. When the systems work longer and harder to maintain a comfort level in the home, the result is a higher bill," said Duke Energy Carolinas spokesman Ryan Mosier. "Between the polar vortex week early in the month, and the cold wave (in late January), we've seen cold that people in the Carolinas just aren't used to dealing with."

Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves 540,000 customers in Upstate South Carolina and 1.5 million in North Carolina, set one sales record in early January and another Thursday, when 20,799 megawatt-hours was needed between 7 and 8 a.m.

Duke Energy Vice President Nelson Peeler said the company's "generation fleet has performed well" during "some of the coldest temperatures our customers have ever experienced in the Carolinas."

January's average temperature was the coldest for Duke Energy Carolinas customers since January 2011, when the average use was 1,710 kilowatt-hours -- approximately 400 more kilowatt-hours than customers used in January 2012 and January 2013. A demand similar to the January 2011 use would increase a February bill by at least $40. The cost will be higher for heavy-electricity users.

Anderson's average temperature was 35.6 degrees in January, the coldest month in 26 years and the eighth-coldest month in records kept since 1902.

"No doubt, power bills are going to jump significantly because of the prolonged cold weather," said Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative spokesman Terry Ballenger.

"When it's this cold, and stays this cold for several weeks, it makes the heating unit and the hot-water heater work harder to keep the house comfortable," said Ballenger, whose company serves 63,000 customers in Anderson,Oconee, Pickens and northern Greenville counties. "We've had periods of 48 hours without the temperature getting above freezing. That means our customers are going to get socked with some big bills."

Temperatures in the Anderson area were seven degrees below normal throughout January, and roughly 12 degrees lower than the previous January. The result has been record demand on the heels of a 5 percent electric price increase. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 90 percent of the nation's 116 million homes would have endured higher utility bills this winter even if the weather hadn't been unusually cold.

The January spike in energy demand follows successive mild winters in 2012 and 2013.

"The last two years, we really didn't have a winter," said Fort Hill Natural Gas Authority President Ken Porter, whose company provides heating fuel for 38,000 customers in Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties. "Then, to have a month like January, with so many nights below freezing, it will make the bills seem even higher."

"This could be an all-time peak sales for the month of January," Porter said.

Because of long-term contracts and some interruptible accounts, Fort Hill hasn't needed to buy additional fuel at inflated prices, as has been the case with some gas suppliers nationwide. But even at normal rates, Porter expects some sticker shock.

Use has been elevated, Porter said, because families have been at home during the day more than normal.

"When the roads are in bad shape, a lot of people are staying in. This means the thermostat stays up and the heat keeps running," Porter said.

Wholesale natural gas prices have risen to a 3-year high of about $5 per million BTU's, up from $4 in the fall.

Nationwide, prices for heating oil and propane have also spiked.

Heating oil, used in 6 percent of U.S. homes, hit a record high this week of $4.18 a gallon.

The national average for propane, elevated by reports of a shortage, reached $4 a gallon last week. That's nearly double the price ($2.28 a gallon) of January 2013.

Joseph Teague, manager of Anderson's Blossman Gas and Appliance branch, said his store has "more than an adequate supply" of propane for its 2,000 residential and commercial customers.

Teague said the shortage is confined to the Midwest, and "there is no supply concern for our area and for our customers." Blossman President Stuart Weidie said his company "had strong plans in place to deal with potential supply disruptions. The issue is not one of abundance but rather of logistics and getting supply where it is needed."

Nationwide, about 5.5 million homes are heated with propane.

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