If there's one thing that can set home heating costs soaring, it’s a long, frigid blast from one of the coldest Canadian winters in 20 years.
Bone-rattling temperatures that are forecast to persist through March from Saskatchewan and eastward are likely to keep natural gas and hydro bills higher, according to utility providers.
'I thought, 'We must not have paid our bills in the last few months.'' —Victoria Boer, New Brunswick resident
It was certainly a shock to Fredericton resident Victoria Boer when she saw her December energy bill come in at a whopping $1,935 — about four times what she and her husband were used to paying.
"I thought, ‘We must not have paid our bills in the last few months,'" she told CBC News. "It’s ridiculous."
To keep costs down for the next billing cycle, Boer and her husband installed programmable thermostats and estimated that they cut consumption by nearly 30 per cent.
The next month, they were dinged $1,790, still much higher than the $420 they were used to paying when they lived across the road the year before.
More calls about higher bills
"Our heating bills are bigger than our mortgage and car payments together," Boer said.
Based on weather forecasts, relief won’t be coming too soon. Canadians should expect a slow transition to springtime weather, according to Environment Canada. And the colder the weather, the stronger the demand for natural gas, said Tim Egan, president and CEO of the Canadian Gas Association.
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"The most dramatic impact has definitely been in Eastern Canada," Egan said. "Have the consumers in other places seen impact on their bills? The answer is yes, but not like in Eastern Canada."
Toronto customers are paying for the frigid weather, too, with a nine per cent hike on bills for gas-heated homes and a 23 per cent rise in costs for people living in typical electrically heated residences, compared with last year.
"It’s huge," said Tanya Bruckmueller, a spokeswoman for Toronto Hydro.
"We’ve been getting more calls about higher bills."
The figures came from data collected since November.
Nova Scotians turning to heat pumps
Bruckmueller said November had the highest number of "degree days" — a measure of coldness used to calculate bills — in the last 17 years.
She added that a typical Toronto Hydro customer uses about 800 kilowatt-hours per month, costing about $110. In a normal winter, one baseboard heater would tack on about $63 a month; this season, adding a baseboard heater would cost $75 a month, she said.
As expected, phone calls from customers inquiring about the higher costs have been flooding call centres at Toronto Hydro as well as Nova Scotia Power.
Neera Ritcey, a spokeswoman with NS Power, said customers were turning to heat pumps in a bid to reduce costs, with 87 per cent of newly constructed homes now using heat pumps.
"They’ve become incredibly popular as a response to the affordability issue," she said.
This winter in Ontario has been "about 22 per cent colder" than it was at the same point last year, according to Jamie Leblanc, director of energy supply and policy for Enbridge Gas Distribution, which serves Toronto, Ottawa and the Niagara region.
"That’s quite a significant cold," Leblanc said. "That would lead me to believe people are going to use 10 to 12 per cent more gas this year than they have normally, and that’s going to impact people’s bills."
Leblanc said that on average, the households in the roughly 100 communities that use Enbridge to stay warm spend about 60 per cent of their gas in the year for heating.
Natural gas stores depleted quickly
Energy delivery companies such as Enbridge typically buy and store natural gas in the summertime when prices are lower, then keep the gas in storage so the value can be passed on to consumers in the winter.
"But this winter, our storage has been used up faster than normal," Leblanc said.
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That forced Enbridge, the country's largest natural gas distributor, to buy more at market price, and consumers felt the bite on their home heating costs. While summer prices typically hover around the $4-$5 per gigajoule range, spot prices are on the order of $24, said Jon Sorenson, an energy adviser to the government of New Brunswick.
"It's colder than it’s been in 10 years, so [suppliers] are getting dinged and banged, being charged these high spot prices," he said.
Even so, Egan, with the Canadian Gas Association, believes natural gas is still the most affordable heating option for most people in Central Canada. "If you were heating your home with electricity or propane you'd be spending a lot more than natural gas, even in an extended cold period like this."
In an email, a spokesperson for the Canadian Propane Association said the unusually cold weather has caused a spike in propane demand in Canada and the U.S., as well as delaying transportation of propane to some parts of Canada.
"The situation is beginning to improve, and as temperatures level out demand will return to normal. However, this is dependent on the length and severity of the winter season," the statement said. "Overall, our industry is doing everything it can to meet the spike in demand caused by this winter season."