Experts say energy costs could remain high next year

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(Host) The heating season may be winding down, but consumers are still reeling from the high costs of staying warm this winter.

The price of a gallon of home heating oil averaged $3.46 in March, almost a dollar more than the year before.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, experts say prices could remain high next winter and this is a good time to plan.

(Sneyd) Prices in some parts of the state have ranged as high as four dollars a gallon this winter.

And Pam Shambo of the Bennington-Rutland Opportunity Council says demand for assistance has been consistent all winter.

(Shambo) "And that’s just out of the reach of even everyday folks that are working 40 hours a week. That’s just totally over and above what any of us can even spend. So when you’re on a very limited income, it just makes it that much harder.”

(Sneyd) The cost for heating a home for a season has skyrocketed from $1,300 or $1,400 a few years ago to as much as $3,000.

Now, people are trying to catch up from those bills. Tim Searles says requests for assistance are spiking again this week at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

(Searles) "What we’ve seen this winter is a real manifestation of what we call the heat-or-eat syndrome where people cut back on their food bills, people cut back on paying their light bills and other necessities in order to afford their home heat because that’s the first priority.”

(Sneyd) People who’ve had a tough winter keeping up with their bills now face the prospect of having their utilities shut off.

That’s because they may have stopped paying bills while they were struggling with heating expenses. Searles says under state law, it’s easier for utilities to shut off customers for nonpayment after April first.

(Searles) "I’m very, very worried about record numbers of utility disconnections in the state of Vermont in the coming months because there are people carrying record arrearages on their bills, past due amounts, in both natural gas and electric, because they’ve been unable to keep up with those bills during the winter.”

(Sneyd) People who don’t qualify for assistance also have been stung by fuel prices this winter.

Steve Wark of the Public Service Department says this would be a good time to prepare for similar high prices next winter, by buying oil in advance, insulating their home or switching what fuel they use.

(Wark) "So there are ways out there. I think it’s going to require Vermonters to be resourceful and innovative, but there are ways out there that can save money.”

(Sneyd) A new law is supposed to help people reduce the amount of heating fuel they burn. Workshops will be held to develop details on how it will work. But the goal is to help people make their houses more weather tight or to replace old furnaces and boilers with new, efficient versions.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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