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Why Wisconsinites can expect higher heating bills this winter

Four men and one woman sit with mics and briefing notes before them
Panelists spoke in a state Senate briefing about winter heating costs

Wisconsinites’ heating bills are expected to spike again this winter.

A typical household with natural gas will pay about $950 this winter, up from $700 last year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

A number of factors are straining the natural gas market.

Sarah Mead is the director of gas supply at WEC Energy Group, which owns We Energies, as well as Wisconsin Electric Power Company and Wisconsin Gas LLC. On Tuesday, she spoke at a state Senate briefing, held by Republican Sen. Julian Bradley, about winter heating costs.

“It is not a scarcity of supply, there is supply,” Mead said. “It’s a costing mechanism right now.”

This summer, heat waves driven by climate change had utilities drawing on natural gas reserves. Also at play are retiring coal plants across the Midwest and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“Economic recovery has also increased demand for natural gas across all consumer sections,” Mead said. “All these places are consuming natural gas that during the pandemic, a significant amount of them had been shut down.”

The briefing included executives from WEC Energy Group and the lobbying group Wisconsin Utilities Association, as well as representatives from the state Public Service Commission.

Mead cautioned that the price spikes depend on how the winter weather plays out.

“If we have a really cold December and a really cold January, we could see prices spike again,” she said. “A very small impact on the weather [could] make a price spike happen again because the supply and demand is so tight.”  

Customers have different options for managing costs. Richard Stasik, director of state regulatory affairs at WEC Energy Group, discussed the budget billing program.

“So as their energy consumption rises, they’re going to level that [payment] off or average it out with the lower consumption months, so they pay a steady amount throughout the year,” Stasik said. “They don’t have big price blips in the winter or the dead of August when their air conditioner’s running.”

The state Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program is income-based and helps households with heating and electric bills.

Brad Rose, from the state Public Service Commission, said the Division of Energy, Housing, and Community Resources will help people get connected to the right program.

“It’s kind of a one-stop shop,” Rose said. “All the different programs that they might be available for in terms of assistance on bills, or if there’s an issue with the furnace, that organization will help connect them and get them the assistance they need.”

The nonprofit Keep Wisconsin Warm/Cool Fund offers direct aid to low-income households.

Milwaukee County has its ownenergy assistance program, which provides residents with a one-time, annual payment for heating and electric bills.

According to theCitizens Utility Board, residents can shave off savings by winterizing their homes: Things like making sure windows and doors are sealed or insulating attics and basements.

The briefing comes as We Energies seeks to raise its rates. If approved, residential rates would go up 13% next year.

We Energies says the increases will help the utility pay for clean energy projects like solar power and battery storage. But critics say the company is taking too much in profits.

In a hearing early this month, Milwaukee residents spoke against the proposed rate hikes. They said high bills already force them to choose between electricity and things like rent or childcare.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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