Residents brace for higher heating costs

As oil prices rise, some looking for heat alternatives

Posted: Tuesday, September 12, 2006

News of world oil prices has some in Juneau wondering if oil heating may come with an electric-heat price tag this winter.

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Crude oil prices remain higher than they were last winter, despite a 17 percent drop since their all-time peak in mid-July. On the world markets, crude oil fell for a sixth straight day Monday, dropping below $66 a barrel, according to The Associated Press. But at $65.11, the price was still more than $3 higher than it was in February.

For consumers, the overall price increase translates to an increase from about $2.65 per gallon to more than $3 per gallon in recent weeks, according to Don Cameron, an estimator and a salesman for Cameron Plumbing and Heating.

Cameron said he was happy to hear of the latest drop in the cost of crude, but said there is still concern.

"People are definitely looking at alternative heating sources," he said. "People are really talking about burning wood stoves this year."

Some people who use Monitors, oil stoves known for their efficiency, and similar heaters to supplement their boilers could be looking at heating bills of $400 a month if oil exceeds $3 this winter. That's comparable to what people pay to heat with electricity in Juneau, he said.

Gayle Wood, director of consumer affairs for Alaska Electric Power & Light, said as an oil consumer, she, too, is concerned about the costs.

Juneau electric rates for the upcoming winter will be 0.26 percent higher than last winter, she said.

AEL&P should have enough hydroelectric power to provide customers with the kilowatt-hours they demand this winter. But there are limits to the environmentally friendly energy source. If enough people switch to electric heat this winter, the utility could have to resort to burning diesel to meet the demand, Wood said.

AEL&P charges more when it needs to generate kilowatt-hours with diesel fuel, she said. The charge would appear on bills as a power-cost adjustment to the regular rate. That didn't happen last year, but diesel prices have been rising, and this year the consequences would be worse.

"There's that unknown out there," she said. "Monitor-type stoves are more efficient (than electric heat). If a person has an oil boiler and oil costs more than $3 a gallon, they could be better off using electricity."

It's best for everyone if people use less electricity by using it as efficiently as possible, Wood said. She recommended checking insulation and windows for possible heat loss.

Cameron, who said his light bill goes up when AEL&P has gone to supplemental diesel generation, said wood stoves aren't the ultimate answers either, although a $200 cord of wood will last longer than $200 worth of oil. There is the danger inherent to cutting wood, as well as the risk of stack fires.

He has been working to conserve oil at his home, despite the cool summer. "I haven't had any heat in three months," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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