If you haven't felt it, you've probably heard about the crippling cold weather and strong winds that have hit most of the United States and Canada. Thanks to a distortion in the polar vortex, a circulation of strong winds present on both poles, many parts of North America are seeing their lowest temperatures in decades, if not ever. The implications of this cold front are plenty: schools and offices have closed, and natural gas rates are set to skyrocket to record highs.
Energy such as natural gas is purchased by distribution companies, which in turn sell it to residential customers. During the cold surge, wholesale natural gas prices rose to more than $90 per million British thermal units (mm/BTU) from New York to South Carolina. On January 6, New York City natural gas prices reached record prices, while historically peaking at $40 to $50 mm/BTU. Demand for natural gas is up as residents look to heat their homes, stretching storage levels thin and leaving energy companies scrambling to meet the demand.
Natural gas rates have yet to spike, but it appears inevitable. According to the Wall Street Journal, futures prices are up more than 20 percent since early November and that could increase if storage levels continue to be depleted. For now, utility companies will be burdened with the additional costs of the wholesale gas, but they could be passed on to residents in the upcoming months.
Even if you live in an area that primarily relies on electric heating, you may face a similar inevitable price spike. For example, with parts of North Texas facing their coldest temperatures in more than a century, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas was forced to purchase and import almost 1,000 megawatts of electricity from other parts of the U.S. power grid and Mexico to prevent widespread power outages. Several Texas power plants failed due to the extreme cold, forcing power companies to buy emergency electricity at about 100 times the normal price. Similar to during summer heat waves, the increased electricity demand will eventually be reflected in customers' rates.
What can you do?
The worst of the cold front will pass by the end of the first week of January. Due to the high purchasing prices, higher rates appear inevitable. Residents around the country who live in deregulated energy markets and are enrolled in long-term fixed-rate plans will be the least affected by rate changes. However, other residents might experience a rise in prices sooner rather than later. Conserving energy is the main way to keep your heating bill under control, though personal safety should be your top priority, even if heating your home costs a bit extra.