The Retired Investor: Pray for a Mild Winter
Household heating prices this winter are expected to be higher as a result of the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict. Depending on the severity of the winter, gas supplies could be in short supply, especially in the Northeast.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting that Americans who heat their homes with natural gas will see their heating bills rise by an average of 28 percent. Given that almost half of the households burn natural gas as their primary heating fuel, that is a painful poke in the eye for consumers who are already contending with high gasoline and food prices
Those who use oil for their home heating needs will not fare much better, with heating bills expected to climb as high as 27 percent. On average, your oil bill will cost $2,354 this year versus $1,212 in 2020, while gas bills will average $1,094.
Over the last few weeks, natural gas prices have fallen, but they are still up 68 percent thus far in 2022. Unseasonably warm weather in October, as well as an ongoing shutdown in a large liquified, natural gas (LNG) plant, has depressed prices. In addition, several LNG export terminals have closed temporarily for maintenance.
Before you ask, yes, we do have an overabundance of natural gas in this country, however natural gas, like oil, has become a political chip in the present conflict in Europe. Natural gas, as we know, has become the Achilles heel of Europe's conflict with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. As a result, demand for LNG exports from the U.S. has become a critical lifeline for the European Union in both industry and consumers.
In the U.S., New England utilities depend on natural gas to generate electricity, unlike other areas of the country. This situation has worsened with the closing of antiquated, oil, nuclear-powered, and coal generators, which historically had accounted for about 25 percent of peak demand in the winter months. That is not a new situation. The Northeast has been wrestling with energy supply problems for more than a decade.
One of the main issues is New England's limited pipeline capacity. One proposed pipeline, for example, which would have transported natural gas from Appalachia to New England has been blockaded by "not in my back yard" opposition by New Yorkers. Today, more than one-third of natural gas supplies in the form of LNG are imported during periods of peak demand, according to EIA. What's worse, thanks to the Jones Act, which restricts the movement of cargo ships between U.S. ports, sea delivery of U.S. natural gas is almost impossible.
As a result, the Northeast is in the unenviable position of competing with Europe and other nations for foreign LNG. The going price for natural gas in Europe is $100 per million British thermal units (BTU), versus $30 per BTU in New England. That makes securing off-shore LNG an extremely expensive prospect. In addition, most utilities only purchase a portion of their imported gas on fixed-price agreements. They rely instead on the volatile, natural gas spot market to purchase additional supplies.
If the winter turns out to be severe, utilities could be paying several times today's prices for fuel on an ongoing basis. In Europe, in countries such as Germany, frantic efforts to purchase and store natural gas in preparation for winter have been going on for months. Right now, the EU’s storage tanks are full and LNG tankers are lined up off the coast of Spain.
However, in New England, utilities have a limited capacity to store natural gas. We could see a situation that a harsh winter could set up a bidding war for supplies around the world.
As it stands today, if the Northeast has a moderate winter, natural gas supplies, while expensive, will be sufficient. However, if the opposite occurs, the grid may be in trouble as more gas will be diverted to heat homes, and less to generate electricity. If so, that could result in rolling blackouts, or conservation efforts to keep electricity supply and demand in balance similar to what happened in parts of California this summer during the state’s heat waves.
Thus far, the National Weather Service is forecasting warmer than normal temperatures across the southern and eastern U.S., let’s hope that is accurate.