Minnesota's warm winter cools heat expenses

  • Article by: BILL McAULIFFE
  • Star Tribune
  • April 1, 2012 - 8:17 PM

The warm weather this winter, coupled with low natural gas prices, found Minnesotans paying nearly 30 percent less to heat their homes than they did last winter, and about half as much as they did only four years ago.

The average CenterPoint Energy homeowner paid $358 for gas from November through February, compared with $674 for the same period in 2007-08, said spokeswoman Rebecca Virden. That's a drop of 47 percent. Xcel Energy gas customers saw a 41 percent decrease, from $637 to $377, over the same period, according to spokeswoman Mary Sandok.

The average budget-plan charge for CenterPoint customers dropped from $72 a month to $58 in the annual February adjustment, Virden said. CenterPoint supplies gas to about 70 percent of Minnesota homes; Xcel covers the east metro and North Dakota.

March is expected to reflect a continued downward trend. The month was expected to finish as the warmest March on record across the region.

"March bills will be very small," Virden said in an e-mail, adding that the average bill for the entire November-through-March season could be $200 less than last winter's. An Xcel Energy gas bill might be $150 lower than last year's. Utilities will calculate the final figures, including for March, in the coming weeks.

Dave Mandt, a homeowner in Watertown, has tracked a savings of about $75 per month this winter compared with last year. Some of that is likely because of new windows and a programmable thermostat, he said, but the lower cost of gas itself and the warm weather were the main factors. "We're putting the money back into family activities," he said, ticking off several recreation programs for three kids and a visiting exchange student.

AC, anyone?

Some homeowners might have actually revved up the air conditioning during the month, as "cooling degree days" showed up on the weather scorecard. A cooling (or heating) degree day is a measure of the energy needed to maintain a home at 65 degrees.

March had 16 cooling degree days through Wednesday, only the fourth time since 1891 that the month has had any at all. The next most was three in March 1910, which was the warmest March on record until this year.

Many large office buildings began switching from heat to air conditioning several weeks ago.

The warm winter happened to fall during a period when the domestic natural gas supply has expanded rapidly because of new drilling, Virden added. So gas would have been a relative bargain even in a difficult winter, she said. The average bill last winter, when four months out of five had temperatures below normal, was 26 percent lower than in 2007-08, when gas prices were their highest ever.

Heating degree days this winter -- November through March, which utilities regard as the heating season -- were the least of any winter on record. They were 22 percent below normal as of Wednesday; they were nearly normal last winter. In March, they were headed toward a final total of 509 going into Saturday, also by far the fewest on record since 1891, and less than half the average.

The gas savings may have led some homeowners to take their eye off the energy-efficiency ball this winter, said Carl Nelson, program and policy manager for the Center for Energy and Environment. Last winter, there were waiting lists of people needing their eaves de-iced, and home insulators were doing a brisk businesses.

"There's no doubt there's been a dip in interest," Nelson said. "As compared to last year, you couldn't get a bigger contrast. But it's a great time to do insulation right now. As we know, winters and ice dams are not going away. And if this warm trend continues, we're going to have a heck of an air-conditioning season."

What's ahead?

Sandok said Xcel's several long-term weather forecasts aren't indicating an unusually hot summer. The National Climate Prediction Center, in its three-month outlook for April, May and June, has indicated equal tendencies for above, below or normal temperatures for Minnesota.

For his part, Mandt, the Watertown homeowner, said he and his wife will continue to look for opportunities to stretch their dollars and save energy through home improvements, more efficient appliances and rebates and credits.

"I'm definitely kind of an outdoorsman. I'm thinking the efficiencies we gain have an environmental, as well as a dollar, impact," he said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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