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Heating costs are rising, inflation is surging, and the coronavirus pandemic has left many in financial distress.
The combination leaves some North Carolinians worried about being able to keep their homes heated.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration warned in its Winter Fuels Outlook released in October that prices would rise — in some cases significantly — this winter.
“The high prices follow changes to energy supply and demand patterns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the EIA report noted.
“We expect that households across the United States will spend more on energy this winter compared with the past several winters because of these higher energy prices and because we assume a slightly colder winter than last year in much of the United States.”
According to the report, almost half of the homes in the country rely on natural gas to supply most of their heat. Those households will see bills increase by an average of 30% compared with last year, according to the EIA. Estimates range from a 22% increase if it is a warmer winter or up to 50% in a colder one.
Piedmont Natural Gas announced in October that it was raising prices at the beginning of November, according to a press release posted on the Duke Energy website. According to the release, the average residential bill would go up about $11.34 each month compared with costs over the summer, totaling about $136 per year.
The increase was attributed both to the higher price of natural gas Piedmont has to pay as well as necessary “safety and infrastructure investments,” according to the release.
For the 41% of U.S. households that use electric heat, the EIA estimates they will spend about 6% more, with estimates ranging from a low of 4% to a high of 15%.
Less than 10% of homes rely on propane or heating oil for heat, but they could also see increases ranging from 29% to 94% for propane and 30% to 59% for heating oil, according to the EIA.
Power grid review
Paying for heat is just part of the equation. The failure of the Texas power grid in February of last year raised concerns about the stability of North Carolina’s grid, prompting the N.C. Utilities Commission to conduct reviews of the system.
“I can’t tell you, ‘No, absolutely nothing will happen here,’ but I can tell you we don’t believe, based on what we know, that it would occur to the same extent as to what happened in Texas,” James McLawhorn, director of the energy division of the Public Staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission said Jan. 27.
“And we are taking a look to see if we are vulnerable, where some of those vulnerabilities lie and what we need to do to try to correct those.”
The Public Staff asked the commission to look into North Carolina’s power system last May, but the request was on hold as the commission waited to see what would come from a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp.
Once that report was published in November, the Public Staff took a month to review it, then asked the commission again to review the North Carolina grid. The commission agreed and announced the beginning of its investigation on Jan. 26.
According to McLawhorn, looking at what happened during the polar vortices of 2014 and 2015 helped the state identify areas that could be improved.
“We had some generating units that had some issues but did not have to shed any load, did not have customers in North Carolina that were out,” McLawhorn said.
While there were “issues,” McLawhorn said they were not nearly as severe as those that occurred in Texas last year.
That “trial run” enabled the commission to review the system and identify needs. When a new natural gas plant was built, the commission ensured extra measures were taken to prevent potential issues, McLawhorn said.
“The commission in that certificate proceeding required some winterization,” McLawhorn said. “Some components that might normally be exposed to elements had to be built inside buildings where the temperature could be controlled somewhat.”
Significant differences exist between the power grid in Texas and the one in North Carolina.
“We are not nearly as isolated as they are and don’t rely … on natural gas as much as they do,” McLawhorn said.
“About 50% of our energy comes from nuclear power and so wouldn’t have the issues. We would still have issues, or could, because we do have natural gas generation, but it wouldn’t be exactly the same as what transpired in Texas.”
The commission’s order announcing the investigation includes a list of questions aimed at electric and natural gas companies as well as water and wastewater utility companies.
The list includes queries about how often the companies source weather forecasts and the “robustness” of the forecasts. It also has questions about whether generators faced issues due to cold weather and how those problems were solved. Among other inquiries, it asks how the companies would alert customers if load shedding was necessary.
At the top of the list is a question asking what the companies are doing now as a result of watching the Texas disaster.
The commission included water and wastewater utilities in the investigation since they, too, were affected by the storm in Texas.
“In addition to examining the level of preparedness of the major utilities in North Carolina, this proceeding will involve consideration of whether amendments to commission rules are necessary to ensure preparedness, coordination and reliable service during extreme cold weather events,” the order states.
A loss of power contributed to those failures. In the commission’s order, it noted that the FERC/NERC report found that more than 14 million people in Texas were told to boil water.
“Broken pipes and power outages caused water pressure to be reduced, put pumping stations out of commission and ultimately prevented water utilities from providing safe drinking water to many of their customers,” the order notes.
Jeff Brooks, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said Duke is constantly analyzing its performance to learn what improvements can be made. The company is working to improve its system in all six states it serves while considering regional differences and extreme weather events.
“One thing you want to consider is that we serve a pretty broad service area, so some of those resiliency needs are different in different places,” Brooks said.
“The coastal community is probably thinking more along the lines of protecting against hurricanes and tropical weather, but we were just in Wilmington this past weekend getting ready for an ice storm.”
Whether the company is learning from a hurricane or a polar vortex, Brooks said, the process is constant.
“We’ve been really taking a pretty intense look at the grid over the past few years,” Brooks said. “Going into every storm we learn something new.”
Duke has a team of meteorologists as well as self-healing technology designed to “quickly reroute power along main lines,” according to Brooks.
“That’s a technology that exists in about 20% of our main power lines we have in the Carolinas, and we’re hoping to expand it to serve 80% or more of our customers,” he said.
The company also used the 2014 and 2015 polar vortices to upgrade its freeze protections, Brooks said. In 2018, the company “saw improvement” despite the cold temperatures thanks to those fixes.
“We’re working to engineer a more climate-resistant grid that’s also more optimized for a cleaner carbon future,” Brooks said.
The utility companies named in the Utility Commission’s order will be asked to answer the list of questions and participate in technical conferences in March and April.
McLawhorn stressed that the investigation is not being held because of suspected issues but to avoid unpleasant surprises. The goal is to be proactive rather than reactive.
“We don’t want to wait until there is a problem and find out that there is a problem similar to what happened in Texas,” McLawhorn said. “We don’t want to sit there and assume that without looking into it.”
North Carolina is actively working to expand its renewable energy sources. According to the EIA, North Carolina was the fourth-highest solar power generator in the nation in 2020. That same year, it was also the fifth-highest in generating energy from nuclear power.
Funding for individual needs
The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program offers $183.3 million in funds, including an additional $87 million as part of the American Rescue Act, according to a press release from the White House. Eligible residents can apply to a county program, and if they receive approval, LIEAP provides a one-time payment to their heating company.
December was reserved for applications from those 60 or older. Others who meet eligibility criteria can apply through March 31, though funds could run out before the deadline.
New Hanover County benefited from the extra LIEAP funding, receiving about $1.3 million more than usual for its program, according to Vanell Walker, the county’s assistant director of social services.
So far, New Hanover County has not seen an increase in applications for LIEAP, with about 2,800 applications this year and last year.
The county typically ensures customers receive the funds 30 days after their application is approved, though Walker said times can vary.
In Durham County, 1,073 applications for LIEAP were approved in December, according to Pamela Purifoy, senior public information officer for the Durham County Department of Social Services. The application total is not yet available for January, but most applications have to be processed within 10 days but in some circumstances may not be fully processed for 20 days, she said.
Purifoy anticipated seeing more applications in January as some individuals under 60 became eligible.
Wake County has approved fewer applications for heating bill aid this year but saw a drastic increase in the number of automated payments it issued.
According to Leah Holdren, a communications consultant for Wake County, the county received $3 million. Holdren said the amount received is determined by the population as well as the percentage living in poverty.
Unlike LIEAP, the Crisis Intervention Program did not receive funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, according to Holdren. CIP helps eligible residents with both heating and cooling needs in emergencies.
From Dec. 1, 2020, to Jan. 26, 2021, Wake received 3,882 applications. Of those, 1,720 were for CIP, and 2,162 were for LIEAP. Another 1,479 automated LIEAP payments were made.
Since Dec. 1, fewer new applications have been received but a significantly higher amount of automated payments have been made.
As of Jan. 27, Holdren said about 3,100 applications had been processed as well as about 3,000 automated LIEAP payments made on behalf of qualified individuals who received payments last year.
While the state expects to exhaust its LIEAP funding by the deadline, families could possibly see additional help, according to Summer Tonizzo, a press assistant for DHHS.
“We do not anticipate having leftover funds, but if there are, they will be used to provide an additional payment towards energy costs to families who are eligible to receive a benefit through our Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP),” Tonizzo said via email.
“Counties have up to 30 days to process the application and send the payment to the heating vendor.”
Weatherization is another strategy for residents concerned about lowering heating bills. While New Hanover County doesn’t offer that service, it does direct residents to another local program that can help with weatherizing, according to Walker. Weatherization is one of several services the Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry offers.
For weatherization assistance in Durham County, Dawn Dudley, a senior public information specialist for Durham County, said residents could turn to Resources for Seniors, which administers the federal Weatherization Assistance Program. That program is not affiliated with the county. Like Durham, Wake County does not offer weatherization services but points residents the Resources for Seniors program.
The New Hanover county government also assists other groups offering relief from the cold.
“We do have warming shelters in our county that are coordinated by local community groups and typically hosted by local churches when the temperature is going to be below freezing for two or more nights in a row,” Jessica Loeper, chief communications officer for New Hanover, said via email.
The county supports the shelter with supplies such as water, toilet paper and paper towels, she said.
An informal Durham program also provides help to residents during frigid temperatures.
“The Durham County Office of Emergency Services assists with the White Flag program that enhances shelter capacity for the homeless,” Dudley said via email. “OES has worked with other county departments for warming and cooling center … most notably the libraries.”
To learn more about LIEAP, as well as the new Low Income Household Water Assistance Program and other assistance programs available in the state, visit the DHHS website.