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Heat cost 'looking scary'

The cost of heat this winter could force people in the Northeast to skimp on nutrition and medication, said Brian O'Connor of Boston-based Citizens Energy Corporation.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 20, 2004


"For people with low wages or people on fixed incomes, what are the prospects of another $500 to $600 blowing into your household?"

—Brian O'Connor


The cost of heat this winter could force people in the Northeast to skimp on nutrition and medication, said Brian O'Connor of Boston-based Citizens Energy Corporation.

Average households in the northeastern U.S. will spend $270 more on heating oil this winter to heat a home, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) - a 28.4% increase. Last winter, an average household in the Northeast spent $953 on heat. This winter, that will rise to $1,223, according to recent EIA projections.

But O'Connor said that report - released Oct. 6 - is already on the low end. "We are looking at more like a 51% increase in average family spending," he said. "Families that spent $800 last year will spend $1,200 this year."

The Oct. 6 projection is out of date, agreed Neil Gamson, spokesperson for the EIA, because prices are moving upward so rapidly. "World oil prices have been climbing like crazy. Crude oil prices have gone up $1.50 today. So, yes, this projection is probably low."

However the numbers look, heat costs are rising so much it's going to be a disaster for many people, said O'Connor. "For people with low wages or people on fixed incomes, what are the prospects of another $500 to $600 blowing into your household?"

It means families will scramble to stay warm, O'Connor added. "People will cut down on nutrition for their children. Senior citizens will cut their pills in half."

People will also rely on dangerous sources of heat, he said, that could cause house fires.

There are federal programs that offer heat income assistance, O'Connor said, but this year the aid isn't likely to meet the need. "Churches and other groups will have to meet some of these needs."

But for at least some churches that extra cost is "looking scary," said Lara Hoke, program director for Massachusetts Interfaith Power and Light (MIPL), a nonprofit that offers Massachusetts congregations a comprehensive means of reducing energy consumption, lowering operating costs, and promoting non-polluting, renewable energy.

"Congregations struggle under the best of circumstances to pay their heating bills," said Hoke. "This year's costs could cause a pinch. And the sad thing is that money goes away from the activities they're doing."

Per capita, per hour of use, houses of worship are often among the biggest wasters of energy, and the United States has more houses of worship than any other country, according to MIPL.

Around 11 percent of household heating systems nationwide use heating oil, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But other regions of the country will also pay more for other sources of heat, the EIA October projection shows. In the Midwest the average household will pay $249 more for propane to heat a house - a 21.6% increase. Also in the Midwest, the average household will spend $134 more for natural gas heat - a 15.3% increase.

Heating-fuel expenditures per household are expected to rise this winter in all regions of the country, reflecting both higher fuel prices and, in some areas, colder weather than last year, according to the EIA.

Employers are also looking at higher utility bills - just when a new study released by Cornell University researchers found warm workers make fewer errors.

And November's heat cost projection is only going to be higher, Gamson said. "Unless the weather turns really warm, people are going to pay significantly more for their heat."

Tips for conserving heat

- Set the thermostat between 65 and 68. (Make exceptions for infants, ill, and elderly)

- Lower temperature five degrees at night.

- When you leave town, set thermostat on 58.

- Use draperies, awnings, blinds or shutters on all windows.

- On sunny days, keep window coverings open.

- Place furniture against inside walls.

- Have your furnace and gas appliances serviced annually.


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