Energy bills slated to rise

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Students who want to save a few bucks this winter may want to stock up on sweat pants and long underwear, as Wisconsin heat bills are expected to rise.

Customers of We Energies, the main electric company for residents of southeastern Wisconsin, could see an increase of up to 11 percent, or $78, in their heating bills for the 2004-'05 heating season, according to Beth Martin, spokeswoman for the company.

The increase is due to the rising cost of natural gas, which is traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, Martin said. The average cost for last year's six-month heating season was $710, according to Martin. The expected increase would raise the price to $788.

Students living in apartments may not have as large of an increase as other Milwaukee residents since apartments usually have fewer square feet than an average house, Martin said.

However, the amount by which heating bills increase is not set in stone.

"It's a very subjective number, and it's really difficult to predict natural gas increases because we're relying on normal weather and normal usage," she said. "If either of those two things changes, it's going to have an impact on the bill."

We Energies uses tools to cushion fluctuations in natural gas price futures on the NYMEX for customers, Martin said. One practice, called "hedging," is when the company purchases a portion of natural gas it will need throughout the year at a specific market price, and charges that same price for customers.

"If we pay $5 per decatherm, we pass that (cost) through to our customers," Martin said. "We don't manipulate or make money off the price of natural gas."

One way students can have a consistent bill each month is by going on the budget payment plan offered by We Energies. Customers pay the same rate, which is based on their prior year's energy usage, every month. At the end of the year they either receive a credit or are charged depending on if they use more or less energy than they were budgeted for.

Jeff Weigand, a College of Business Administration senior, will be keeping a close eye on his energy bills this winter.

Weigand and his three roommates live in the lower unit of a two-flat house off campus and are on the budget payment plan. In May, they received a bill from We Energies that included a $1,150 debit due.

"We were not happy," Weigand said. "That's almost $200 more than what we pay in rent. For college kids, that's a lot."

Students should be sure to keep tabs on how much energy they use every month if they use the budget payment plan to avoid surprises at end of the heating period, Weigand said.

Still, budget payment plans are an effective way to plan for expenses, according to Kathryn Crumpton, manager for Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Greater Milwaukee.

"The more you can spell out the known things in your budget the better off you are," Crumpton said.

Students who are living in a house or an apartment for the first time can call We Energies to ask what the general usage has been on the building in prior years or talk to other residents, she said.

Other steps students can take to avoid potentially hefty bills this winter include lowering the thermostat temperature when they leave for class and go to bed, sealing plastic around windows and using curtains and shades to block cold air, she said.

Reducing the thermostat temperature by one degree can cut energy bill costs by three percent, Martin said.

For students who are especially price-conscious, letting the warm air out of the oven after baking or out of the bathroom after showering can also help warm the place up, Crumpton said.

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