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November 23. 2013 9:18PM

As temps dip in NH, so do oil-heat costs

New Hampshire is expected to feel its first blast of winter-like cold today, but residents who heat their homes with oil can take heart: They will be paying less this year than last, experts say, and that could allow them to push up the thermostat an extra degree or two.

Meanwhile, natural gas, propane and electric customers can all expect to pay more this season, some as much as 13 percent more, according to a federal agency.

Today's weather forecast calls for high temperatures in the 20s in southern New Hampshire. With wind gusts up to 45 mph, some areas will experience near-zero wind chills.

"It's going to feel like mid-January," said Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine.

Oil customers can expect to pay 2 percent less to heat their homes this winter, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported in its annual "Winter Fuels Outlook." According to the state's Office of Energy Planning (OEP), the average price per gallon for home heating oil in New Hampshire last week was $3.63 per gallon. A year ago, it was $3.92.

Admittedly, the dip in price might not amount to much of a savings, but after several seasons of steadily climbing oil prices, it's a big improvement.

"It's good news," said John Rider, chairman of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire and a principal owner of Dead River Oil Co.'s North Haverhill location.

His company was selling oil for $3.64 a gallon on Friday - nearly 30 cents less per gallon than the price a year ago. "Cheaper prices for heating oil help our industry. It's a more affordable fuel for the customers."

The heating-cost forecasts are in the EIA's 2013-14 Winter Fuels and Energy Outlook Report, which is available to consumers, oil dealers and providers of natural gas, electric heat and propane. The temperatures cited in the report are close to those seen last winter, with the Northeast projected to be about 3 percent colder and the West about 3 percent warmer.

Compared with last winter, people who primarily heat their homes with natural gas can expect to pay 13 percent more for the product. Those using propane can expect a 9 percent increase, and those using electricity can expect a 2 percent increase.

Not set in stone

Of course, forecasts can be wrong. As always, any disruption in output by big oil-producing countries could create a spike in prices.

"I think if you talk to three different agencies or analysts, you'll probably get three different stories - and even those will vary depending on the day," said Rider. "There are so many variables that can come into play and affect pricing that it's almost impossible to predict where they are going to be a few weeks from now. Now that being said, the most recent forecast I saw had prices staying fairly steady, where they are now, which is a good thing."

According to price listings posted at NewEnglandOil.com, the lowest price in the state last week was in the southern region, at $3.28 a gallon. The highest price was in the northern region, at $3.70.

Prices in New Hampshire are comparable to those in other New England states. In Massachusetts, average regional prices were steadier, ranging from $3.41 per gallon to $3.51. In Maine, average regional prices range from $3.30 in southern Maine to $3.63 in the Downeast Maine region.

With 47 percent of homes heated with oil, New Hampshire is one of only four states where that fuel is the dominant source of warmth. Nationally, natural gas is the dominant home heating fuel, followed by electricity and then oil, according to Bloomberg,com.

Last week, natural gas prices ranged from $1.15 to $1.19 per therm, electric heat was 15 cents per kilowatt hour, kerosene was $4.14 per gallon, propane was $3.02 per gallon and wood was $2.47 per ton of pellets or $250 per cord.

According to the state, natural gas and wood provide the best bang for the buck, as the two fuel sources are the cheapest when considering prices for every million British thermal unit, or BTU, something the OEP calls on its website "the true cost of the fuel per unit of heat."

Natural gas ranges from $11.46 to $11.94 per million BTU, and wood is $14.98 for pellets and $15.15 for cord wood. Electric heat is the most expensive, at $43.27 per million BTU, while oil is $26.19, kerosene is $30.66 and propane is $33.12.

Families who anticipate financial struggles this winter can apply for help paying a portion of their heating bills.

The state's Fuel Assistance Program is federally funded and administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but the assistance is provided through local community action agencies. The state provided assistance to 36,805 households last winter and expects to see at least the same number of requests this year, said Celeste Lovett, the program's director in New Hampshire. "We're getting requests from people who have never been on the program before," she said.

pfeely@unionleader.com



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