A pedestrian walks down an empty street in the Bayside neighborhood . Credit - Brianna Soukup—Portland Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
When Deanna Schultz received the utility bills for the trailer where she lives in Rock Falls, Ill. this month, she was stunned at how expensive they had become. Her electric bill alone more than doubled, up $85. Now, with natural gas prices on the rise, she is concerned about heating costs, too.
“Last month I had $16 left after paying bills,” says Schultz, 50, a former teacher’s aide who has an autoimmune disorder that impacts how her body regulates temperature. “If I lose my [heating] I’m in trouble.”
Low-income Americans like Schultz face dangerous consequences of higher heating costs, but nearly everybody in the U.S. can expect to pay significantly more—often hundreds of dollars—on their heating and energy bills this winter—fueled by a global energy crisis and the fastest growing inflation in 40 years.
Some 55.3 million Americans struggled to afford their energy bills in 2021, and it’s likely many millions more will face a crunch this year. Experts say the patchwork of assistance programs across the country may not have the funding to deal with an uptick in demand.
“Going into winter,” Schultz says, “I’m worried.”
Here’s how much your heating bill is going to go up
Heating bills are expected to increase by 17% across the country—costing about $177 more on average and reaching the highest cost in more than a decade, according to a Sept. 12 report by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
NEADA estimates that American households will pay $22 billion more in heating costs this winter than in the 2021-2022 season.
But, how you heat your home and where you live will dictate how much your heating bills will increase.
For families that use natural gas for heating—roughly half of U.S. households—costs are expected to rise $243, up 34%, with bills hitting $952 on average.
Households that use heating oil may see costs rise $239, up 13%, to $2,115 on average.
Propane-heated households could pay $241 more, up 15%, to $1,828 on average.
Homes that get their heat from the electrical grid could see a more modest cost increase: up $86, or 7%, to $1,328.
The pinch is likely to be most severe in the Northeast, where oil and natural gas are the primary feeder fuels for electricity compared to other regions, further raising demand.
Unitil, a Northeastern utility company that serves roughly 200,000 customers, requested to increase electric rates in New Hampshire by 160% starting on Dec. 1, if approved by the Public Utilities Commission. National Grid, a utility company serving more than 20 million people throughout New York and Massachusetts, says households will pay on average $263 more for natural gas heating this winter, up 39% from the year before. Con Edison, a utility company that serves more than 3 million people in New York, says natural gas users should expect a 32% bump in their electric bill.
Most energy companies have already sent notices to customers about the upcoming price increase, but for some middle- and lower-income families, the burden could be too much.
“I think we’re heading towards a very serious problem of affordability for millions of families as prices go up and temperatures lower,” says Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. “It’s putting more and more pressure on families that could have very low discretionary income.”
Why heating costs are going up
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has put a strain on global energy supplies, is likely the main source of rising heating costs, energy experts say, but other factors could be at play, too. Electric companies used up a significant amount of their natural gas reserves this summer to power air conditioning as Americans needed to cool down from the third-hottest summer on record. And the supply hasn’t been able to keep up with demand.
As much as Americans will be feeling the pain of higher heating costs, most of Europe is in far worse shape: U.K residents are expected to see an 80% spike in their energy bills this October, while natural gas heating is projected to cost 67% more in Germany, and there are concerns of shortages across the continent as key gas supplies from Russian have dwindled.
The U.S. has benefitted from its massive production of fossil fuel energy, exporting more liquified natural gas than any other country in the first half of 2022, but the global surge in demand for these fuels means costs are going up domestically too.
The rise in oil and gas prices has triggered calls for investing more in renewable energy sources—but it’s difficult for utility companies to pivot their energy sources in the short term. “It really points out that being reliant on fossil fuels makes you subject to the unreliable volatility in the market,” Wolfe says.
How you can reduce your home heating costs
The U.S. Department of Energy recommends a number of steps to help lower heating costs this winter, such as opening up curtains and shades during the day to let natural sunlight warm homes, and lowering the thermostat at night. The DOE also recommends sealing any air duct leaks, covering drafty windows, checking heating systems and vents for dust or broken parts, and conserving hot water.
Households are advised to conduct yearly energy assessments to better understand how they can save money on home heating. This can be done by checking insulation levels, inspecting heating equipment, and locating air leaks. “A home energy assessment should be your first step before making energy-saving home improvements, as well as before adding a renewable energy system to your home,” the DOE states.
Many Americans may be planning on using space heaters as a quick fix this winter, but experts warn these portable devices can cause massive fires if left on for long periods of time, and can use up lots of electricity which is also expected to become more expensive this winter.
What you should do if you can’t afford your heating bill
Schultz, in Rock Falls, Ill., managed to pay her most recent energy bill after friends helped her out, but she knows that isn’t a long-term solution. So she applied for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, a federal initiative that helps people nationwide cover their heating and cooling bills. “Without LIHEAP,” she says, “I would not make it through winter.”
Each state determines who’s eligible for the program, based on income limits—a family of four in Maine—where more expensive fuel oil is a common heat source—is eligible if their gross income is less than $59,348, for example. Local nonprofit groups often help distribute the money, which recipients receive as a credit on their energy bills.
Congress is expected to give the program an additional $1 billion in funding this year, but that’s much lower than the extra $4.5 billion it received from the American Rescue plan in 2021. Roughly 5 million households received assistance with heating costs through LIHEAP last year, costing an estimated $2.9 billion. With another cold winter expected, more households may try to apply for it this year.
Some Americans have been able to receive help from local charities, churches and community groups. Schultz says she previously got aid from a local nonprofit community agency, which helped cover the cost to replace her furnace and water heater, as well as put in a more efficient central air unit that could help lower her utilities bill. “The temperature is livable now,” she says.
But it’s only going to get colder. According to Wolfe, when it comes to household budgets: “Weather is the biggest wildcard. If it’s a very cold winter, then heating is going to be even more expensive.”