BILLINGS — It's likely going to cost you much more to heat your home or business this winter.
"When we did our initial look back in October, we were looking at about a 60% increase for our Montana customers," said Mark Hanson, a spokesman for Montana-Dakota Utilities.
Experts point to a number of reasons, but the main one is simple: more demand than supply. Natural gas reserves are the lowest they’ve been in five years, so prices are up. Rates in Billings increased almost 14 percent from September 2020 to September 2021, according to NaturalGasLocal.com, with the natural gas share price peaking at $6.31 in early October.
But Mother Nature has been on customers side since then.
"We had a very mild November," Hanson said. "Consumption was down 15% across Montana, and the price of gas was down as well."
All the way down to $4.57 as of close Tuesday. But Montana-Dakota Utilities, Billings’ main provider with 65,000 customers, says it was much worse not long ago.
“Somewhere in 2008-09, the price was $10-13 per dekatherm," Hanson said.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration was more conservative on estimated rate increases. November's Winter Fuels Outlook report said it expects a 20.3% increase for homes in the West region, which includes Montana. That could rise to above 40% if the upcoming winter is 10% colder than normal, or fall to the low teens if the winter is 10% warmer than normal.
Bills will go up this winter compared to last. A mild winter will ease the burden, as will the usual home remedies: checking your furnace filter, insulating doors and windows, and turning the thermostat down.
"The Department of Energy puts out a rule of thumb: one degree down means one percent lower on your bill," Hanson said.
But come daylight savings time, there should be relief.
"Probably toward the end of the 1st quarter of 2022, we’re going to see prices come back down to where they were."
Montana's Public Service Commission says residents should contact their natural gas utility to learn about options that average annual bills for monthly payments. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Low-Income Energy Assistance pays part of winter energy bills for eligible people and most utilities offer LIEAP recipients discounts on their bills.
Montana Energy Share provides emergency bill assistance. To learn more, go to energysharemt.com.