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No spike in electric prices seen this winter

By: Steve Orr |

Tom Bates has taken to padding around his Perinton home in the evening, turning out lights in empty rooms and dialing down the thermostat at bedtime.

Yes, he just got his January electric bill. And yes, he remembers last February, when electric prices went through the roof.

“To try to get the bill lower, I’ve been trying to rein in extraneous uses of electricity,” he said of his conservation efforts.

While January electric bills may have been above-average in many upstate New York households, they’re not likely to get all that much higher. There are no signs of an extraordinary jump in prices that upstate saw last winter.

In fact, the average price of electricity in New York in January was 67 percent lower than a year earlier, said David Flanagan, a spokesman for the New York Independent System Operator, which oversees the state power grid.

And so far this month, the outlook is positive. The price of electricity supplied to Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. residential customers has declined 13 percent since January, and is well below where it was in February 2014.

In good part, that’s because of the price of natural gas. As Flanagan put it, gas is “the primary driver” of the cost of electricity in New York.

The price of natural gas in New York this January was 71 percent lower than in January 2014, Flanagan said. The price has remained stable this month.

“We don’t have high gas prices. The lower cost has been a big help,” said Fairport Clerk-Treasurer Kay Wharmby. Fairport Electric, a municipal utility, supplies electricity to about 17,000 customers, including the Bates family.

As many consumers learned last winter when the eastern part of the country shivered through repeated incursions of polar cold, weather helps drive the price of electricity. The colder the winter, the more energy consumed by furnace blowers, space heaters and the like. That rising demand pushes up the price.

This year, like last, temperatures were well below average in January in Rochester and the rest of upstate New York. In fact, Rochester’s average temperature is down 5 percent this January compared to last. “We’ve had just about the same kind of weather. It’s very similar to last year,” Wharmby said.

As a consequence, electric consumption has been quite high. “Last year was the highest (usage) we had seen in decades. This year is very similar to last year,” she said.

The difference, however, is the price of natural gas.

Last winter, the widespread cold temperatures throughout the region led to great demand for natural gas for heating purposes. At the same time, generating companies were clamoring for the same supply, because a third to a half of New York’s electricity comes from plants that burn natural gas.

Supplies ran short and prices went up.

Nothing like that is occurring this winter. Upstate New York has been cold, but most East Coast cities had near-normal temperatures in January. And December was warmer than normal, which left natural gas stockpiles full going into the depths of winter. There have been no supply constraints to push up prices, Flanagan said.