Consumers may get a break this winter as the result of relatively stable home heating fuel costs, but increased fuel consumption because of a colder winter could push heating bills up anyway.
Last winter--the warmest in more than 40 years--resulted in savings on heating bills estimated at more than $2 billion. A return to normal weather could trigger an increase in heating bills because of increased consumption, even in the case of fuel oil, which is expected to decline in cost.
Assuming no major changes in the economy and no change in the current crude oil price of $29 a barrel, the Department of Energy predicts that fuel oil prices by the beginning of the new year will decline approximately 3 percent from last year, while natural gas prices increase by 7 percent and the cost of electricity rises by 6 percent.
In the Washington area, differences in the rate of change in prices of different fuels appears likely to be even less pronounced, based on information from area utility and fuel oil companies.
Washington Gas Light Co. prices will increase by about 4.8 percent, with the average residential heating cusomter paying approximately $110 a month during the October-to-March period this year, compared with $105 during those months last year.
"That demonstrates the stabilization of gas prices," said WGL spokesman Paul Young. Young said pipeline companies have been lowering prices and WGL has also sought out lower-cost suppliers.
Potomac Electric Power Co. customers in the District and Maryland should pay about the same price per kilowatt hour for electricity during this year's heating season as last, according to spokeswoman Nancy Moses. The last electric rate increase in the Districtwas last December and no others are pending. In Maryland, a 4.3 percent Pepco rate increase Pepco took effect in February but subsequent adjustments in a fuel surcharge have offset that increase, she said.
Pepco did receive a 5.7 percent increase in its rates earlier this month in Virginia, where the utility has fewer than 3,000 customers.
Virginia Electric and Power Co. customers will pay approximately $71.72 for an average heating bill compared with $67.50 last year, an increase of about 6 percent. If the State Corporation Commission decides adversely on a rate request filed in March, Vepco rates could drop by about 2.5 percent. The rate increase has already been put into effect under a procedure that requires the utility to refund what the customers have paid if the SCC later rules against the request.
Another pending case in which the company is seeking to recover costs attributable to a cancelled nuclear unit could add 3.6 percent to electricity costs in Vepco's service area. However, a decision on that issue appears unlikely this winter.
In terms of heating oil prices, "it's going to be kind of flat and dull," according to Herb Triplett, a vice president of Steuart Petroleum, a major fuel-oil dealer here. Triplett said the Sept. 19 average price of fuel oil in the area was $1.169, compared with $1.22 a year ago.
Even if normal seasonal price increases occur, they will be starting at a lower point than last year, he said.