As the first cold weather of fall chills the Northeast, many people face a difficult choice: deal with the rising cost of heating their homes, or live without it.
According to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA), home heating bills are skyrocketing again this winter, up 18% nationally from last year’s 17% increase.
Charmaine Johnson works in the call center for Philadelphia’s Heater Hotline, part of a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families with their heating systems and bills. Johnson, 63, can relate to the concerns she hears throughout the day. She, too, has trouble paying her heating bills.
With her son’s help, Johnson has just paid more than $1,000 to fill part of her oil tank, which she hopes will last most of the winter.
Johnson says she is not eligible for government assistance with her heating bills. With inflation also driving up her food budget and other expenses, she’s bundling everything and holding down the heat, hoping to stretch the oil for as long as possible.
“It’s miserable,” she said. “It’s like living in an igloo.”
According to the Energy Information Administration, several factors are driving the rise in home heating costs, including the war in Ukraine, OPEC+ cuts, a surge in energy exports, lower energy inventories and high demand for natural gas in the US power sector (RRP).
EIA projects to heat a home with natural gas cost 25% more this winter, and heating with electricity costs 11% more. The steepest rise will be for heating oil, which is expected to be 45% more expensive than last winter, putting pressure on around 5 million homes, mainly in the North East.
Tim Wiseley is keeping the heat at his home outside of Philadelphia even as temperatures plummet towards freezing. He wants his heating oil to last as long as possible, and it costs about $1,500 to fill his tank.
“It’s 50 or 55 degrees in here. It’s not unbearable for me yet,” Wiseley said, adding that he’ll turn on the heater if his “teeth are chattering.”
The 67-year-old is retired and living off Social Security benefits month-to-month. He lost his wife last year and his medical bills add to the long list of expenses.
“You can’t go shopping and get oil. It’s one or the other,” he said.
Wiseley believes he will run out of heating oil sometime this winter. He’s not sure what he’ll do if that happens.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” he said. “A feeling I don’t wish on anyone.”
This winter, the Biden administration is distributing $4.5 billion in federal aid to help families pay for their heating bills.
Funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, comes from regular congressional appropriations, additional emergency funding lawmakers included in September’s ongoing resolution, and $100 million from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year according to the Ministry of Health and Human Services.
Annette Thomas, 53, and her husband received $500 from this program to help heat their home near Philadelphia, she said. But it was only enough to fill about a third of her oil tank, which Thomas says will only last two to three weeks.
“That’s why we’re holding back,” she said. “We haven’t turned on our heating yet. And now it’s cool.”
They try to pay their electricity bills in the coming days to avoid a shutdown. Also, her other bills and expenses are high. So they use space heaters and electric blankets to keep warm in hopes of saving on their heating oil when their kids come home for Thanksgiving.
“These aren’t luxuries, these are necessities, and it’s a struggle,” Thomas said. “So yeah, it’s annoying. It is.”