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Bringing the heat: As temperatures drop, utility bills rise
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A pressure chart on the Prior Street regulator station shows gas usage over a one-week period. Pressure usually drops around 7 a.m. as residents get out of bed, turn up the heat and use hot water, Liberty Utilities distribution operator Rick Smallwood said Friday. Usage drops and pressure rises to the normal 32 to 35 pounds per square inch around 9 to 10 a.m., he said. - photo by NAT GURLEY

As temperatures drop across Northeast Georgia, power bills are likely to rise as heaters click into overdrive to cope with the freezing weather. For some, the cost becomes burdensome.

“Typically in the winter, our bills go up,” said Gainesville resident Felice Walker. “Our electricity bill is usually $250 to $270 then, and this is the first time I have seen one over $300.”

Walker lives in a rental house with an air conditioner and heating system powered by propane. The cost of filling the propane tank was too expensive, about $800 she said, which has left Walker to rely on an electric wall heater to heat her home.

The only problem is the heater doesn’t have a thermostat, which means it runs constantly until Walker turns it off. Though she often turns off the heater when she goes to sleep, her power bills are still more than she can afford.

Fortunately, Walker has been able to make payment arrangements with Georgia Power to keep her electricity running.

In the meantime, she is considering other ways to fix the problem.

“We’ve thought about buying a home, but we would still have to rent for at least another year,” Walker said. “Maybe we can get propane in the offseason if it is cheaper then.

“We might try doing some more insulation around the window. Right now, as soon as we turn off the heater, all of the heat goes out.”

Residents aren’t the only ones who are struggling to cope with the temperatures. On Jan. 7, temperatures in Hall County dropped to around 5 degrees, and both Georgia Power and Jackson EMC set records for peak usage.

Georgia Power reached 16,859 megawatts, over its previous record of 15,806 in December 2010, while Jackson EMC hit 1,293 megawatts. This is especially abnormal, considering the summer is usually the electricity companies’ peak season.

“In the Southeast, we almost always set peak records in the summer, because it gets so hot and people run their air conditioners overtime to stay cool,” said Bonnie Jones, director of communication for Jackson EMC. “We just don’t see winter peaks, usually.”

This is the first time Jackson EMC has had a winter peak usage in its 74-year history, she said.

Georgia Power has also had to resort to unusual measures to cope with demand this winter. It has brought additional generation plants online that otherwise wouldn’t have been operating at this time of year, company spokeswoman Carol Boatright said.

“We monitor weather constantly, and any time we see a projection for extreme weather, whether it is hot or cold, we need to make absolutely sure that all our equipment is functioning effectively,” she said.

The extreme cold brings more problems than just increased demand. It can cause transformers and fuses to fail, causing outages and forcing technicians to work in potentially dangerous conditions to fix the problem.

“I think that morning between 3 and 5 (degrees) we had probably about 2000 outages, all scattered across our coverage area, which is highly abnormal,” Jones said. “It took a lot to get that repaired, as far as sending crews out to individual locations.”

However, many North Georgians heat their homes with natural gas rather than electricity. Liberty Utilities provides gas to about 9500 locations in the area, the majority of it for heating. Like the electricity companies, winter weather often leads to peak flows and high demands for the Liberty, said Joel Ames, the company’s senior manager of sales and customer care.

To cope with the demand, cross-country natural gas suppliers, called “transmission companies,” increase pressure along their major pipelines, which increases the amount of gas the local grid can draw on.

Locally, natural gas is relayed through a series of regulators throughout the energy grid, which monitor and adjust pipe pressure and alert the company if it drops below normal.

“Our employees are aware of incoming cold weather and plan for and schedule time to visit our regulator stations and critical junctures in our system during cold snaps to ensure that the system operates effectively,” Ames said.

Liberty can also take certain customers who have been deemed “interruptible” offline during high demands. These customers are usually commercial locations which have backup gas tanks and have agreed to be interruptible customers in exchange for cheaper rates.

All three companies agree on a few tips to help customers keep energy bills down:

  • Keep the thermostat at 68 degrees; every degree over that can increase your bill by 3 to 5 percent.
  • Make sure heating vents are open and unobstructed, and change furnace air filters regularly.
  • Ensure that your home is properly insulated, and all air leaks, such as the area around doors and windows, are well sealed.