Predicting winter's heating costs as uncertain as forecasting the weatherby Greta Cunningham, Minnesota Public Radio
A year after Hurricane Katrina knocked out a fifth of the nation's natural gas production and prices jumped 29 percent, the U.S Energy Department is predicting heating bills should be much lower for most Americans this winter, by as much as 13 percent. In a report released almost at the same time, Minnesota's largest energy company predicted its customers will pay MORE than last year to heat their homes with natural gas.
Confused? Here's one reason why. Both projections are based on a less than exact tool: weather forecasting.
St. Paul, Minn. — CenterPoint Energy's annual forecast says the average residential customers in Minnesota will pay about 12 percent more this year to heat their homes than last year. The company predicts it will cost Minnesotans about $1200 to heat their homes through next July.
Centerpoint Energy is basing its estimates on it's belief that Minnesota will endure a colder winter than last year.
Centerpoint's Joe Klenken say his company's calculations suggest Minnesota is due for a COLDER than average winter, a prediction that is based in part on last year's mild winter.
"January for example, our biggest heating month was the warmest January in 100 or some years. Our supply purchases and our plans for the winter are always based on a normal type winter," he says.
But Craig Edwards, Chief Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, says not so fast.
"Right now the weather service prediction is for temperatures to more likely favor milder than normal for the winter of this coming year," he says.
So, if Craig Edwards and the National Weather Service are right, the U.S., including Minnesota, will see a warmer winter and lower heating bills. This matches up with the energy department's predictions.
Centerpoint uses its own internal records and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to calculate its weather forecast and how much energy will be needed. That's how the company came up with the prediction of a colder than normal winter and higher than normal natural gas usage.
"We're actually not forecasting prices going up, we're saying usage will go up which will cause your bill higher than last year," the company's Joe Klenken says.
So why the contradicton? Craig Edwards says there are a number of variables to consider when trying to predict a Minnesota winter. Forecasters have to factor in global warming, the warmer winds from El Nino and the temperature readings from the oceans.
Edwards says he's not entirely surprised that Centerpoint would predict a colder winter.
"One of the things that was brought to my attention today was that the Farmer's Almanac is also predicting a colder than normal conditions across a large area of the country," Edwards says.
According to Edwards, this week's Minnesota weather is a good example of just how challenging it can be to make accurate forecasts.
"A lot of meteorologist call this the World Series of weather when you play in the upper Midwest and especially in Minnesota...You can have 80 on a Saturday and less than five days later you've got wind chills in the teens. Not a lot of places have that kind of bragging rights when it comes to weather swings," Edwards says.
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy has not yet released its forecast. A spokesman says the weather will be the key determiner in it's forecast of what consumers will have to pay for natural gas this winter.
- All Things Considered, 10/10/2006, 5:50 p.m.