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It will cost more to heat your home this winter

Joe Napsha
| Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, 12:15 p.m.
Travis Latshaw of Mark Latshaw & Son makes a delivery in Hempfield on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Travis Latshaw of Mark Latshaw & Son makes a delivery in Hempfield on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Travis Latshaw of Mark Latshaw & Son makes a delivery in Hempfield Township on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Travis Latshaw of Mark Latshaw & Son makes a delivery in Hempfield Township on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.

As overnight temperatures dipped to close to freezing this week, Judith Willochell and her brother, Ed, had another load of heating oil delivered to their Hempfield home, where two 275-gallon tanks sit in an old coal bin and connect to their furnace.

The price of $2.25 per gallon was higher than they paid last year, but Judith Willochell felt a lot better than when she paid $3.60 a gallon a few years ago.

"I'll have money to buy other stuff," said Willochell, whose annual fuel bill has hovered around $1,000 in recent years.

Temperature drops across Western Pennsylvania caused people to turn on furnaces in October, the start of what a federal energy agency and meteorologists say will be a more expensive winter season for heating homes because of anticipated colder temperatures and higher energy costs.

Natural gas prices are expected to increase 12 percent, home heating oil will rise 17 percent, electricity will go up 8 percent and propane 18 percent, according to the 2017 Winter Fuels Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Overall, people will use more heat than last year. It will be about normal," said Paul Pastelok, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather, the State College-based meteorological service. "But if there is a snowpack in mid-to-late December, it will be colder."

People likely will use furnaces a "normal amount to full force of usage" in December, Pastelok predicted, with average temperatures in the upper 30s to 40s during the day and in the 20s at night.

"It won't be an extensive level of usage," Pastelok said, but January looks to be colder than last year.

The region's winter has about a 40 percent chance of being slightly warmer in November and December. But January, February and March could be colder than normal, said John Darnley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Moon Township. Below-zero temperatures will be followed by periods where temperatures are above freezing, which is typical for the area, Darnley said.

The beginning of November has resulted in an increase in business, Travis Latshaw said as he delivered fuel oil to the Willochells from his Mark Latshaw & Son LLC tanker truck.

"We've been really busy," said Latshaw, who runs the business with his father.

People who rely on home heating oil saw prices rise to $2.43 a gallon in late October, up from $2.12 a gallon for Pennsylvanians in early November 2016, according to EIA data. Heating oil usage is expected to increase by 6.2 percent, the energy agency said.

At Luther P. Miller Inc., a home heating fuel supplier based in Somerset, fuel oil cost about $2.20 a gallon this week, slightly higher than last year, said Cheryl Bundorf, manager of the company's Ligonier office.

Bundorf blamed the increase on hurricanes that shutdown oil refineries along the Gulf Coast. She said it was too hard to predict how the prices would fluctuate this winter because there are so many variables.

Bloomberg Markets this week reported that hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf of Mexico and disrupted refineries there helped sink domestic stockpiles of heating oil to the lowest level in two years. U.S. exports to meet European demand for distillate fuels also had an impact.

Among Luther P. Miller's customers, propane use is on the rise and the price is about the same, Bundorf said. Its customer base is split evenly, with propane and natural gas "running neck and neck," Bundorf said.

Propane averaged $2.91 a gallon at the end of October, up from $2.78 a gallon in November 2016, the EIA said.

At West Penn Power, the Greensburg-based utility's typical customer pays about $114 a month, based on a rate of 6.289 cents per kilowatt hour. The bulk of the bill, about $63, covers the cost of electricity, said Todd Meyers, a West Penn Power spokesman.

Electricity rates typically are higher during winter, as the rates change four times a year, Meyers said.

Whether West Penn customers will pay more for electricity this winter will be determined, in large part, on the weather, Meyers said.

"A lot of it depends on how cold it is and how you react to the temperatures," Meyers said.

The EIA anticipates electricity usage to rise 2.5 percent this winter.

For natural gas customers, the EIA predicts consumption will rise 5 percent this winter.

"While we can't predict the future, the long term outlook is for a continuation of low gas costs," said Lee Gierczynski, a spokesman for Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Maryland. The company serves about 426,000 customers and covers 18 counties in central and Western Pennsylvania.

A jump in Marcellus Shale natural gas production has lowered residential heating bills in Pennsylvania by 40 percent compared to 2007, according to a new study from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

The study focusing on "Pennsylvania's Gas Decade" shows how low-cost shale gas from the state flowed into regional energy markets and substantially lowered gas commodity prices compared to national prices.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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