The severe cold weather has upended NIPSCO's winter bill forecast, with the utility now saying customers should expect natural gas bills for January that are on average $36 more than in January 2013.
Bills for the first two months of the year typically are among the year's highest, but the extreme cold last month has resulted in even higher than normal usage of natural gas by customers, according to NIPSCO Director of Customer Service Deb Owen.
“Even with thermostats being set at a fixed temperature, it doesn’t escape the fact that heating systems have to constantly run to keep up with dropping outdoor temperatures,” Owen said.
When NIPSCO issued its winter season heating forecast in October, it only expected a 1 percent increase in natural gas prices and a moderate increase in bills because of colder weather. But temperatures plunged to below zero in nine days in January in the Greater Chicago region.
NIPSCO points out it continues to charge the lowest price of any utility in Indiana, which includes both natural gas usage and delivery. A NIPSCO customer using 200 therms of natural gas in a month would be billed $141.88, as compared to the Indiana average of $181.80, according to Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission data.
Northwest Indiana Community Action Corp. has approved about 8,600 households for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) so far this winter heating season, according to Gina Gomez, who is community service manager for the agency.
That is only slightly above the number of households served at this time last year, but the average benefit has increased to $320 from about $230 last year. Gomez said that tells her there is increased need and applications will probably increase even more as compared to last year.
NIPSCO has its own Customer Assistance for Residential Energy (CARE) Program, which can provide discounts on natural gas bills for customers in addition to LIHEAP assistance. There also is a NIPSCO Hardship Program which can provide up to $200 in gas bill assistance for people who might not qualify for LIHEAP.
NIPSCO customers who have fallen behind on their bills can call the utility and arrange to catch up through paying installments over three months by calling (800) 464-7726.