Costlier winter warmth forecast for most fuels

Heating bills are expected to rise for most Americans this winter, but the majority of South Jersey residents who use natural gas may see lower bills than last winter — depending on the weather.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says home heating bills in the Northeast may rise by 18 percent for natural gas, 2 percent for electricity and 11 percent for propane, the agency reported in its annual Short Term Energy and Winter Fuels Outlook this week.

Heating oil bills are expected to decline by 2 percent nationally.

In South Jersey, natural gas bills may cost less this winter than the year before, barring a cold snap.

New South Jersey Gas rates took effect starting Oct. 1, dropping the average 100-therm residential bill to $128.31, or $4.22 less per month.

The drop was not related to wholesale natural gas costs but was mostly tied to the Conservation Incentive Program, a state Board of Public Utilities-authorized program that stabilizes rates from weather fluctuations.

Since last year’s particularly cold winter meant customers used more gas, rates dropped this year. The prior year the opposite happened during an unseasonably warm winter.

The region also benefits from its proximity to the Marcellus shale, said Timothy Rundall, director of gas supply at Folsom-based South Jersey Gas.

“I would say that Marcellus shale is and continues to be the primary price driver now for natural gas and the fact that that supply is geographically close to South Jersey Gas is a benefit. It provides us with a lower priced commodity,” he said.

In Atlantic, Cape, Cumberland and Ocean counties, nearly 71 percent of residents use natural gas, according to Census estimates. About 15 percent in the region use electricity as a primary heating source; 11 percent, heating oil.

Relatively few homes use wood, solar or coal as their main source of heat.

The U.S. Energy Information predictions are tied to fuel markets and to weather predictions, since people spend more on heating during extreme cold. National forecast temperatures are similar to those recorded last winter, it said.

The agency expects the average natural gas bill in the Northeast to reach $1,045 during a period from Oct. 1 to March 31. Nationally, the projected bill is $679, which is higher than last year but $27 less than the five-year average.

Natural gas price declines during this period are tied to increased U.S. production from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract the fossil fuel.

Nationally, electric heat could cost a household $909 over the six-month period. In the Northeast, bills could be higher — predicted at $1,083, the U.S. Energy Information said.

In the Northeast, propane and heating oil are the two most expensive major fuels with which to heat homes.

Heating oil bills are expected to average $2,046 during this six month-span, $46 less than last year.

In the Northeast, propane bills are predicted to reach $2,146 during this period, $206 more than last year. Propane bills in the Midwest should be cheaper — $1,453.