Here's what Wisconsin natural gas customers can expect on their bills this winter
Now this feels like winter.
Single digit morning temperatures, windchills below zero and the seeming constant hum of a furnace working overtime to keep indoors temperatures livable.
Sometimes it may feel like that is the sound of money burning, not gas - especially for those of us who compared last month's heating bill to their bill from a year ago.
With nightly low temperatures across the state expected to fall below zero for several days this week, here's a look at the weather, the price of gas and other factors that each January add up to what's often the biggest power bill of the year.
If December's bill was off the charts and you're dreading your January bill, you're not alone. Here's what to know.
Why was my December bill so high?
The first thing that may have struck people is that their bill for December bill was higher than a year ago, even though most of December was marked by mild weather.
Late December did bring a stretch of bitter cold, but the real culprit was a worldwide surge in natural gas prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. By summer the price had more than doubled, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That just happened to coincide with the time when utilities are locking in winter contracts for gas and building their reserves. Even though there was a temporary dip in prices mid-summer, utilities paid more for gas and the rates reflected that.
Will January be any better?
The weather will have a say in that — extended cold spells drive up energy use and bills reflect that.
The good news is that the price of natural gas, which fuels most furnaces in Wisconsin, has been dropping steadily. For the week of Jan. 20, the price of gas was half of what it was at the start of December at Henry Hub, a Louisiana fuel depot that is used as a national benchmark.
After spiking mid year, natural gas at Henry Hub is now cheaper than it was in December 2021.
So, does that mean my heating bill's going to be cut in half?
No, it does not.
Even though Wisconsin utilities are only allowed to charge customers what they pay for gas, the prices we pay don't reflect costs on the spot market.
That's because the utilities need to lock in supplies through long-term contracts and storage before the heating season to ensure an adequate supply and also to avoid buying gas during cold snaps, when prices can termporarily jump. What is now cheap gas is only bought by the utilities as its neeeded or to meet peak demand.
That means most of the fuel this year was bought when prices were higher than they are now.
MORE: How a mild winter, falling natural gas prices could spell relief for households reeling from higher energy costs
OK, then how much will I save?
Falling gas prices are a tailwind, but steps taken at home to control energy costs can play an outsized role in reducing energy bills.
How warm do you keep your house? How well insulated is it? How efficient is your furnace?
These things all affect how much gas you use, but assuming there is no significant change in the house or the weather in the last month, there's no question that Wisconsin residents should pay a little less this month. The per-therm rate charged by the utility is set monthly.
Here's how those rates have changed since December:
We Energies' Wisconsin Electric Gas Operations customers rate is 11% lower, while Wisconsin Gas's rate is only down 1.7%.
Wisconsin Public Service Corp.'s per-therm cost is down 9%.
Alliant Energy's Wisconsin Power & Light gas customers will pay about 3.5% less.
Of course, that doesn't translate to an equal reduction in the monthy bill. Service fees, taxes and other charges increase the cost of gas service. And your bill also includes the cost of electricity.
Where can I see the change in gas rates on my bill?
Monthly power bills typically include service for parts of the previous month as well as the current month.
Look under gas service and you'll find two lines that add up to the total per-therm charge.
The first is the base rate that's set by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission when it reviews a utility's rate structure, typically every two years.
The second is a purchased gas adjustment, or PGA, which is a monthly adjustment that reflects the actual cost of natural gas. This can be either an increase or decrease in the base cost.
Add those numbers together for each month to compare the actual cost of the gas you use.
Is January the worst month for home heating?
One way to measure how hard your furnace can be expected to run in January is heating degree days, an indication of how cold a day was compared to a mean daily temperature of 65 degrees — the temperature at which people generally start to turn on their furnaces at night.
By that measure, Wisconsin in January is on average about 15% colder than December and about 20% colder than February.
That means bills for January are likely to be the highest of the winter.
What's a normal energy bill in Wisconsin?
The average winter natural gas bill in Wisconisn was a little over $100 a month last year, but individual bills can vary dramatically based on the size and energy-efficiency of a house. At the start of winter, We Energies anticipated the average bill would be $20 to $30 higher this year.
What's budget billing and how can it help?
The name budget billing may make you think you'll get some sort of discount. You won't.
But what you will get is a buffer from spikes in energy use, whether it's heating in winter or summer air-conditioning.
The plan sets a fixed monthly bill for gas and electric for six months, after which the payment amount is adjusted to account for underpayment or overpayment over the previous six months.
The advantage: You'll never be surprised by a bill that's twice the amount of what you expected.
I'm having trouble paying my bill. Can my power be cut off? How can I get energy assistance?
First, no matter how far you fall behind, Wisconsin utilities cannot cut off your power in winter. Under state law, the winter moratorium on utility cutoffs extends to April 15.
Meanwhile, there is help available.
Wisconsin utilities encourage people who start to fall behind on their bills to contact them to set up a payment plan before a temporary inability to pay becomes a crisis.
Wisconsin's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is funded by the federal government and focuses primarily on heating assistance for low-income households. Grants from the program range from $30 to $1,518. Households must have incomes of less than 60 percent of the state median to qualify.
RELATED: Here's what you need to know about energy assistance in Wisconsin
Want to cut your bill? Here's how.
Here are some low-cost recommendations from Wisconsin Focus on Energy that can reduce your bill:
Use the power of the sun: This one's free. Just open the blinds or drapes and let the sun do the heating. The temperature of a room with a southern exposure can increase as much as 10 degrees on a sunny day.
Clockwise for winter: Most ceiling fans have two settings that are controlled by a switch. In winter, clockwise pulls air up, mixing cold and warm air, but keeping the breeze off you.
Give the furnace some love: Regularly changing filters can make a big difference, and it's important to get your furnace inspected to make sure it's working at its full and most efficient capacity.
If you can feel it, fix it: On a cold, windy day, it's pretty easy to figure out where leaky windows and doors are letting the the cold in. You can stop drafts by caulking drafty windows with silicone and replacing old weather stripping.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: What to expect from your Wisconsin heating bill this winter