Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Nashville's gas heating bills could drop 20 percent this winter

Many still ask for help in recession By Naomi Snyder • THE TENNESSEAN • October 7, 2009 The likelihood of a warmer winter and lower natural gas prices could drive down home heating bills by as much as 20 percent in the Nashville area this winter after years of painful rate hikes. Even so, local nonprofits say the recession has caused a surge in people seeking help with energy bills as the recession continues to take a toll on household finances. Piedmont Natural Gas, the former Nashville Gas, estimates that its average residential customers will pay about $100 a month to heat their homes between November and March, or $25 per month less than a year ago, if the warmer forecast holds true. The company's Nashville-area rates haven't been that low in five years, mostly driven down by wholesale natural gas prices, which are about half of what they were a year ago. People who rely on electricity to heat their homes should see the average bill fall about 12 percent to 15 percent in October compared with a year ago because the Tennessee Valley Authority has been scaling back large spikes the agency instituted last year as fuel costs rose. It's unclear whether those savings will last the entire winter because TVA adjusts rates every month. Nashville beats average Nashville residents may see a bigger dip in energy bills than the national average. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Energy forecast that winter electric bills nationwide will be about 2 percent less and natural gas bills will decline by about 12 percent this year. Other providers also expect customers to see a break on costs. "We expect real savings for Atmos Energy's customers at a time when the economy is putting pressure on everyone's household budget,'' said Denise Manning, a spokeswoman for Atmos, which supplies natural gas to customers in Williamson and Rutherford counties, among others. But agencies such as the Metro Action Commission, which hands out federal dollars to help low-income residents pay utility bills, have seen an increase in people wanting help because of the recession. "We have more and more families who are out of work or their hours have been reduced, different scenarios so they don't have enough to meet their basic needs,'' said Lisa Gallon, a spokeswoman for the commission. "Usually we have been able to pace ourselves, meaning our funds will last a longer period of time,'' she said. "However, we've seen a steady increase in the number of families needing our assistance." Over the summer, the commission saw a 25 percent increase in people seeking aid with their energy bills. This fall, the Metro Action Commission got a $1.8 million boost from the federal stimulus bill, which will help people with higher incomes get help with utility bills (people making 200 percent of the poverty level will qualify, or about $44,000 for a family of four, versus 125 percent of the poverty level previously). Making ends meetOne person seeking help for the first time on Tuesday was Tracy Pendergrass, a 32-year-old real estate agent, who said slower home sales have made it tougher to make ends meet. "Things are moving, but we are selling more foreclosures and homes under $200,000 rather than homes about $1 million, which affects my commission,'' she said. Pendergrass said she recently sold her $206,000 home in Clarksville and moved into a 650-square-foot apartment in Nashville for $575 per month to reduce her expenses. But she was shocked to see her electricity bill was higher in the apartment than in her former 2,700-square-foot home. She said the apartment has an aging heating and cooling system, which may add to costs. "I could be in a little better place if I had a lower electric bill,'' said Pendergrass, who said she paid about $200 to $250 per month this summer for electricity. Lost income and a high electric bill also drove Angela Johnson to the doors of the Metro Action Commission this week. The 44-year-old said she lost her hotel room-cleaning job in March and has been out of work since, picking up the occasional temporary agency job and getting help from her mother to support herself and three children. "I'm putting in (job) applications and they say they'll call you and they don't,'' she said. "The hotel business is real slow." She applied to get help from the Metro Action Commission for two months of energy bills totaling $426. The commission pays out an average of close to $400 per recipient, but the aid is available to each household only once per year.

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