published Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Some Chattanooga area residents may see relief for winter heating bills

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BY THE NUMBERS

• $143.85 - Average residential EPB bill in December, 2013

• $143.67 - Average residential EPB bill in November, 2013

• 152.44 - Average residential EPB bill in December, 2012

• $679 - Estimated average American natural gas bill for heating through the entire winter, up 13 percent from a year ago.

Source: EPB rates for household using 1,441 kilowatthours of electricity in a month

After paying $356 to reconnect gas service to heat her home this winter, Stacie Thomas says she doesn't have enough money this month to feed her family.

So the disabled Highland Park resident got up early Tuesday and waited with dozens of others in the freezing rain for assistance from Metropolitan Ministries to help her buy some food.

"All of my money goes to pay my bills -- I have nothing for me," Thomas said

As the first subfreezing temperatures of winter hit Chattanooga this week, residents like Thomas are having to divert more of their income to heat their homes.

But while utility bills remain one of the greatest needs for missions like Metropolitan Ministries, many homeowners should enjoy some rate relief this winter compared with a year ago.

Electricity users are getting a break this year during the cold thanks to the abundant rains this spring and summer. Natural gas rate, while up slightly from a year ago, are still below their peaks of five years ago.

The average Chattanooga household will pay $8.59 less next month than a year ago for the same amount of electricity, according to EPB. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies electricity to EPB and 154 other municipalities and power cooperatives across its 7-state region, has cut its fuel cost adjustments to bills compared with year-ago levels. Despite a slight increase from November to December, the fuel portion of next month's electric rates will be 26 percent below the December 2012 rate.

That reduction in the fuel portion of TVA rates more than offset a recent 1.5 percent base rate increase to leave power rates charged by EPB next month 5.6 percent below the rates charged in December 2012.

TVA President Bill Johnson credits TVA's abundant hydroelectric power buoyed by this year's heavy rains for much of the improvement in TVA's power costs.

"Hydro generation was a star; it represented about 13 percent of our power supply for the year, compared to its normal production of 8 to 10 percent for a given year," Johnson told the TVA board earlier this month. " In 2013, the hydro system produced the most power it has ever generated in a single year, and it lowered the fuel costs for all our customers. We are continuing to see the benefit of additional hydro power."

TVA benefits from its 29 hydroelectric dams along the the Tennessee River and its tributaries, which rely on essentially free "fuel" from rainfall in the region. So far this year, more than 60 inches of rain has fallen in Chattanooga, or more than 9 inches above normal. Hydro generated power is TVA's cheapest source of electricity.

Other electric utilities across the U.S. are increasing rates for winter heating this year by an average 2 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Those relying upon natural gas to heat their homes will see even bigger increases in winter heating bills compared with last year, although gas rates are still well below the peaks reached four years ago. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that average household expenditures for homes heating with natural gas will total $679 this winter, up 13 percent over last winter's average but still 4 percent below the average of the five previous winters.

"Chattanooga Gas anticipates customer cost for natural gas will remain stable," said Kristie Swink Benson, manager of media relations for AGL Resources, the parent company of Chattanooga Gas. "As a regulated utility we pass along the cost of gas with no markup to the customer. Essentially the customer pays what we pay."

Homes heating primarily with propane are expected to spend an average of $1,666 this winter, or 9 percent more than last winter.

Even with cheaper electric rates and signs of an improving economy, those offering assistance to low-income homeowners and renters say the demand for energy assistance still exceeds the available money.

"The hardest thing we have to do every morning is to turn away those who aren't in line in time to receive our assistance," said Rebecca Whelchel, executive director at Metropolitan Ministries. "The need is still far greater than the money we have."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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