Cold weather puts chill in Chattanooga consumers paying higher heating bills

Cold weather puts chill in Chattanooga consumers paying higher heating bills

February 4th, 2014 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Security Officer Bill Davis stands in front of Regions Bank on Market Street on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, during afternoon temperatures in the mid-teens in downtown Chattanooga.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Charlie Bell scraped together $300 Monday to pay his January electric bill, but that was still $88 short of what he owed EPB for last month's power and only a third of the total $1,051 bill he owes the utility for the past couple of months.

"I'm 53 years old, and I've never had heating bills anything like these," the Highland Park renter said Monday after paying a portion of his latest electric bill. "It's been freezing, and I'm afraid my two-bedroom unit isn't that well insulated."

Last month was the coldest January in Chattanooga since 1985 with the average temperature last month nearly 7 degrees below the normal for January, according to the National Weather Service. In more than 130 years of records, the first month of 2014 was the 10th coldest on record. Temperatures repeatedly dipped into single digits and pushed up electricity consumption from TVA enough to set five of the utility's top 10 winter power peaks last month.

In the seven-state region served by TVA, nearly 57 percent of homes and offices are heated with electricity.

Like hundreds of other Chattanoogans, Bell is getting some help from Uncle Sam to pay his record-high electricity bills through the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, which pays up to $600 a year for low-income families. The program has already pumped $63 million into Tennessee to help the poor pay their utility bills, and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which administers the program in the Volunteer State, expects more federal funds should soon be coming to Tennessee.

"With the cold and the economy being what it is, a lot of people are having trouble paying these bills," said Donna Stone, deputy administrator for the Chattanooga Department of Human Services, which runs the program in Hamilton County.

East Lake resident Jeremy Walker said heating his three-bedroom house cost him $288 last month, plus another $12 late fee, "and there's no telling what's still ahead of us this winter." Walker estimates his heating bills this year are nearly double what he paid a year ago.

"That's a real sacrifice for many of us," he said while paying his bill at EPB's headquarters Monday.

In January, the average temperature for the entire month in Chattanooga was 33.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or nearly 7 degrees below the historic norm, the National Weather Service estimates.

The cold and wintry weather boosted propane and natural gas prices at the wellhead last month. Propane prices rose in some areas to record highs while natural gas prices were nearly double their recession-induced lows of three years ago, although still only half of the peaks reached six years ago.

In February, electric rates are increasing due to higher fuel costs for TVA. The monthly fuel-cost adjustment from TVA will raise electricity rates in Chattanooga this month about 0.5 percent, adding $2.19 on to the typical monthly EPB bill.

Although higher than in January, the fuel cost adjustment is roughly equivalent to what TVA charged its customers a year ago, TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said.

Brooks said hydroelectricity generation -- TVA's cheapest form of generation -- is down 12 percent this month from January's level.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.