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U.S. predicts lower heating bills this year

NEW YORK — Heating bills should be lower this winter because the deep freeze that chilled much of the nation last year is unlikely to return.

Last year, persistently low temperatures across the Midwest, South and East forced people to crank up the heat. The high demand jacked up the price of some fuels, especially propane. Heating bills soared.

This year, milder temperatures should reduce homeowners’ fuel use, according to the Energy Department’s annual prediction of winter heating costs. The price of propane and heating oil should be lower, helping those customers save even more.

“Temperatures are forecast to be warmer than last winter and that means less demand for heat,” said Adam Sieminski, administrator of the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration, in a statement.

Lower energy costs give the economy a boost. This winter, some customers could see savings of nearly $800 on their heating bills, according to the EIA. Gasoline prices are expected to soon drop below $3 per gallon on average in up to 30 states. Consumers will have more money to spend on other things, and consumer spending is 70 percent of the nation’s economy.

But it’s probably not wise to spend those hoped-for savings just yet. Some of the conditions that helped bring record-cold temperatures to the middle of the country still exist, according to Matt Rodgers of Commodity Weather Group, which forecasts weather and heating demand for energy companies.

The warm water in the North Pacific that helped push polar air south into the U.S. still remains, he says. There is also more moisture in the jet stream thanks to warmer water in the tropical Pacific that could generate more East Coast and Southeast snow.

The EIA, using forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts the number of heating degree days — a measure of heating demand — will fall 12 percent this year.

Here’s the outlook for customers of the four most common heating fuels based on current forecasts.

NATURAL GAS

Nearly half the nation’s households heat with natural gas, and they will see a sharp increase in prices, especially in the Northeast. On average the retail price will rise 5.8 percent to $10.57 per 1,000 cubic feet. Northeast customers will see a rise of 6.8 percent, to $12.42 per 1,000 cubic feet, the highest in the country.

The average natural gas bill for the October-to-March heating season is expected to fall, to $649 from $680 last year, because customers are expected to use less. Natural gas remains the cheapest heating fuel by far.

ELECTRICITY

Electricity prices are heavily influenced by natural gas prices, so they’re on the rise. But electricity customers should use less this winter, resulting in lower heating bills for many.

Average bills are expected to fall nationwide however, to $938 from $955. Thirty-nine percent of U.S. customers heat with electricity.

HEATING OIL

Heating oil customers will get a big break on their bills, both because of lower consumption and lower prices.

Lower global crude oil prices are helping push heating oil prices to their lowest level in four years. The Energy Department predicts the average price will be $3.63 per gallon, down from $3.88 last year.

PROPANE

The Energy Department says supplies going into this winter are higher than at any time since at least 1993 and demand is expected to be lower.

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