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Winter forecast: higher utility bills

Summer fuel price hikes will lead to an average increase of $150 for the season, the government says.

October 08, 2008|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Gasoline prices are falling, but energy bills are going up.

The lagging effects of this summer's jump in natural gas prices is expected to boost electricity and gas bills in California and nationwide, though the size of the financial hit will vary widely depending on the utility, the weather, home energy usage and the region's dominant fuel source.

This winter, the average U.S. household will pay about $1,137 for heating -- up $150, or 15%, compared with last winter, the Energy Department said Tuesday. The increase reflects a combination of higher costs for natural gas, heating oil and propane as well as an expected weather-related uptick in consumption.

Heating oil jumped the most, raising estimated costs 23%, or $450, to nearly $2,400 for residents in the Northeast, the government said in its annual winter fuels outlook.

The cost of natural gas, the fuel that heats most California homes and runs most of the state's power plants, nearly doubled in the first half of the year, then dived back to more typical levels in recent weeks. The government said it expected natural gas expenses to rise 18%, or $155, to $1,010 for the average home during the October-March heating season.

However, with such wide fluctuations in fuel prices, individual customer bills largely will reflect when the utility bought or locked in the price for its winter supplies. The fuel-related rate increases set for California customers are expected to be well below the average cited by the Energy Department.

An increase of any size is a painful blow to consumers already facing a multitude of rising costs amid a deteriorating economy and job market, said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco consumer advocacy group. Late payments and power cut-offs are already on the rise, she said.

"What consumers can expect is higher bills at a time when they can least afford them," Spatt said. "Any time rates go up, more consumers are in danger of losing an essential service."

Southern California Gas Co., which serves a population of 20.3 million, said its customers could expect wintertime bills to be about the same or slightly higher this year than last.

The company's charge for the fuel itself fluctuates with the market price, and customers this month are paying 68 cents a therm, down from $1.23 a therm in July, said Denise King, spokeswoman for the Sempra Energy subsidiary.

This winter, residential customers using 75 therms of gas a month should get average monthly bills of between $90 and $100, up from $89 last year, she said.

Southern California Edison, which provides power to 13 million customers, did not answer questions about its wintertime rates. But in a regulatory filing, the Los Angeles utility asked state regulators for a 3.6% increase in rates in 2009 to cover higher power purchasing costs, including electricity from natural gas-fired plants and other items.

Rosemead-based Edison, which has proposed other rate increases for 2009 and beyond, said the power-related increase would add $1.21 a month for the average household using 600 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, raising the total bill to $84.80.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said it expected gas costs during January and February, its peak heating season, to be about 11% higher per therm. But the company said a milder winter should cut household usage, which would offset the gas price hike and keep customers' gas bills flat compared with last winter, spokesman David Eisenhauer said.

San Francisco-based PG&E raised its electricity rates 6% on Oct. 1 to cover the higher cost of buying energy for natural gas-fired power plants as well as the cost of purchasing pricier power when hydroelectricity production fell short of expectations. The average monthly residential electric bill rose to $73.40 from $72.12.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. customers using 50 therms of natural gas a month should expect to pay between $65 and $75 a month, compared with the monthly average of $67 last winter, the company said. Total bills, including gas and electricity, should be between $135 and $155, versus $137 last winter, the utility said.

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elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

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