Heating consumers still feeling effects of January cold snap

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Editor’s Note: In this first installment of a series on the difficulties faced by Rhode Island heating consumers during the winter months, Rhode Island Catholic staff reporter Lauren Clem reports on the continued impact of January’s cold snap.

PROVIDENCE — For Tara Pistoni, a single mom living in Woonsocket, nursing runs in the family. Her mother worked as a registered nurse, so when she decided in December to pursue a different job to support her and her four-year-old son, training as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) was an easy choice.

“I’ve always wanted to do this when I was growing up watching her. I wanted to do it right when I got out of high school, but I got pregnant with my son,” she explained during a phone interview with Rhode Island Catholic in late January.

Pistoni enrolled in a course offered by St. Antoine Residence with the support of a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training that provides free CNA classes in exchange for a commitment to work at the diocesan nursing facility following graduation. CNA training offered the possibility of a higher salary and room for advancement, but it also meant she had to cut back her hours at Dunkin Donuts, where she makes $11 per hour as a shift leader. With less income to support her monthly expenses and those expenses going up due to plummeting temperatures in December and January, Pistoni reached out to “Keep the Heat On,” the diocesan emergency heating assistance program that provides one-time payments toward oil shipments and utility bills. She already owed money on previous gas and electricity bills and was relieved when the program was able to offer some help.

“It’s been different, it’s been up, down, up, down,” she said. “I’m used to bringing home at least $250 a week, now I’m making like $200 a week. I was already behind from National Grid.”

According to James Jahnz, emergency assistance network coordinator for the Diocese of Providence and coordinator of “Keep the Heat On,” Pistoni was not the only one struggling to keep up with the weather this winter. Following the cold snap in late December and early January, the program saw a 30 percent increase in calls for assistance compared with mid-January of last year. About a third of those requests were for assistance with utility payments, while another two-thirds of clients used oil heat and required a shipment of heating oil to keep their tanks filled.

“The demand, and the increase in demand due to the cold snap and the winter weather, has been relentless,” Jahnz said during an interview at his office on January 18.

The impact was especially great for residents of homes with oil heating. Unlike natural gas and electricity rates, which are regulated by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, oil prices tend to spike with consumer demand during periods of extreme cold. According to data compiled by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, the average cost of heating oil rose by 37 cents per gallon between December 18 and January 16, a change felt by programs like “Keep the Heat On” as well as the consumers they serve.

“Demand rose and you saw the price jump 40 cents per gallon, so the direct impact for ‘Keep the Heat On’ – for 100 gallons, that’s an additional $40,” said Jahnz.

As temperatures hovered in the single digits and homes burned through oil at faster-than-normal rates, Jahnz said the effect was also seen on the response times from overburdened oil companies as delivery waits stretched to two or more days. The program relies on good relationships with oil companies to quickly reach consumers who are out of options with almost empty tanks.

“People are really desperate right now,” said Jahnz. “That combination of weather, the ability to make timely deliveries and the increase of cost have a brutal impact on the community.”

Since January, the number of calls for heating assistance has leveled out along with the temperature and oil prices have dropped toward their pre-cold snap averages. However, for gas consumers, the effects are just starting to be felt. On January 29, National Grid filed to increase gas supply rates beginning March 1 to make up for costs absorbed during the extreme cold. The increase, approved earlier this week by the Public Utilities Commission, will result in an approximately 15 percent bill increase for the average residential heating customer, or about $11.87 per month, depending on usage.

“The adjustment is driven by cold weather increasing demand for natural gas above forecasted amounts,” said Timothy Rondeau, spokesperson for National Grid, in an email to Rhode Island Catholic. “This extreme cold necessitated the purchase of additional supplies, over and above those already planned for, in order to meet the needs of our customers. Because of pipeline constraints in New England, when extreme temperatures occur and customer demand rises, the cost of gas supply increases substantially.”

The change will affect customers like Pistoni, who is hoping this year’s tax refund will be enough to pay off previous utility bills. For the single mom and aspiring nurse, utility payments are one more item on a list of expenses to keep her home running.

“I’m trying to work as much as I can to pay the bills and go to school,” she said. “The last four years, I’ve been struggling with living on my own.”