Are you ready for an unusually cold winter? In some parts of the country, seriously cold weather is a guarantee in the winter. But there are other areas where winter weather is less certain. In those areas, people are more likely to get caught off guard by cold weather.
This year El Nino could cause winter to feel a little different than it normally does. Typically, El Nino conditions keep the polar jet stream from flowing down from Canada into the U.S. This causes the winter to be warmer than normal up north, but down south it’s a different story. Subtropical jet streams from the Pacific Ocean tend to flow across the southern states making it wetter, which makes it feel unusually colder across the south from California to Texas.
If you’re gearing up for winter in the bottom half of the U.S. it’s a good idea to prepare for wetter, colder weather that will impact energy rates and comfort at home.
Changing Rates for Natural Gas Due to Cold Weather
If your home is heated by natural gas or your electricity is produced by natural gas, there’s a good chance you’ll see rates changing over the winter. Natural gas is prone to pricing volatility, which means the rates can increase or decrease basically anytime due to a number of factors that impact the natural gas market. One big factor for supply and demand is the weather.
There’s a correlation between El Nino and colder than normal temperatures across the south, particularly from Texas to Florida. The El Nino of 2018-2019 ushered in one of the worst winter storms to hit the south, and it was the wettest winter on record. California and the southwest are less impacted unless it’s a strong to moderate El Nino. When that’s the case, the entire southwest region could experience a winter that’s harsher than normal.
Since natural gas is used for heating homes and heating costs more than cooling, natural gas rates generally go up in the wintertime when it’s colder. The colder it gets, the higher the rates climb. And if there’s a winter storm with lots of precipitation, it can impact production pushing natural gas prices higher still.
In the south, increases in natural gas prices usually aren’t as noticeable compared to up north. However, during an El Nino winter the opposite could be true, so be prepared for higher natural gas rates if you have a variable rate energy plan.
Handling Higher Energy Rates During a Cold, Wet Winter
There’s not much you can do about electricity and natural gas rates beyond switching energy providers. However, there are ways to reduce energy use in the winter and get help paying your utility bills. Since the strongest El Nino effects are felt in the winter between December and February, now is the best time to get prepared.
Ways to Reduce Winter Energy Use
Everyone can benefit from preparing their home for cold weather so that less energy is used. Below are some things you can do to keep it comfortable at home without increasing electricity and gas use.
- Weatherize for the winter. These Texas winter weatherization tips will work for households across the south.
- Break out extra blankets, sleeping bags and sweaters. Adding a warm layer is an easy way to avoid increasing the temperature on the thermostat.
- Handle furnace, fireplace and HVAC maintenance in the fall.
- Hang heavy curtains that can be opened when there’s direct sunlight and closed the remainder of the day.
- Pay special attention to how you operate appliances that use the most natural gas, like the water heater.
- Have winter storm supplies on hand:
- Sand, kitty litter and/or salt
- Snow shovel
- Ice scraper
- Handheld radio
- Extra batteries
- Bottled water
- Canned food and can opener
- First aid kit
People across the south and southwest should also prepare for weather that’s wetter than normal this winter since El Nino is a factor. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have found that El Nino affects precipitation more consistently than temperature. Strong to moderate El Ninos almost always bring higher than average precipitation across the southern regions of the U.S. Paired with colder than average temperatures, there’s a higher likelihood of freezing rain, sleet and even snow. There’s also a greater chance of winter storms.
In California and much of the southwest there’s often more rain, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to more snow. If the temperatures stay relatively normal then it will simply rain, which doesn’t help as much with water reserves in the spring.
Because there’s a very high likelihood that winter will be wetter than normal, it’s a good idea to prepare in advance. One of the most important things to do is make sure there’s good drainage on your property. Also, look out for low spots where water could puddle and turn to sludge or ice. Lastly, cut vegetation back so that nothing is touching your home or hanging over the roof.
Getting Assistance With Winter Energy Costs
The next thing to look into is programs that provide assistance with energy costs. There are a number of programs offering a variety of energy-related assistance, including:
- Help making home improvements that decrease energy use.
- Financial aid for paying utility bills.
- Payment plans that make covering energy expenses easier.
These programs are available at the federal, state and local level. Most federal assistance is administered by state housing and energy agencies, which also have special programs of their own. On the local level you may be able to find assistance from the city or county as well as non-profits, your utility and your retail energy provider.
It’s important to explore the options before energy costs become a financial burden. While some people may not meet the qualifications for some programs, there’s a good chance you can at least work with your energy provider to make payments more manageable during the winter.
No matter what happens this winter, Spark Energy is here for you and ready to help. Our fixed rate energy plans make natural gas prices more predictable, and you don’t have to worry about increases if the weather gets colder. We’ve also got resources that can help you lower energy use this winter and get assistance paying your utility bills.
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