Last winter’s steep increases will be followed by another round of price hikes this season — but there are ways to save.
By Sean P. Murphy Globe Staff,Updated

I paid about $250 more to heat my house last winter, compared with the previous cold season. But it would have been a lot worse if I hadn’t made a determined effort to keep the thermostat turned down to 68 degrees or below.

The result was a 12 percent drop in fuel consumption. Still, my heating bills spiked by almost 20 percent. That’s because the cost of energy — natural gas, in my case — has soared in the last two years.

Should I expect to get whacked with another big increase this winter, even in a chilly house? Yes.

As September nears its end, this is a good time to think about the cost of heat, and what you can do about it. For some, it might mean making a commitment to living in a house or apartment that’s a bit cooler than you might want. Others may consider going on a plan that averages out payment over 12 months. And some may need to reach out for public assistance.

Here are some things to know:

Q. How much higher are energy costs?

A. That depends how you heat — natural gas, oil, or electricity. A little more than half of households in Massachusetts heat with natural gas, while about one-quarter use oil and a little less than 20 percent use electricity.

Q. How much are natural gas prices expected to rise?

A. Forecasting future energy prices is a dicey undertaking. But one good source may be the Energy Information Administration. In its September “outlook report” it includes data on natural gas prices for the first three months of next year — wintertime in New England. Last winter, the EIA data shows, natural gas prices increased by a whopping 21 percent, compared with the previous year. And the report goes on to forecast a 15 percent increase for the winter of 2023.

A 15 percent increase this winter on top of last winter’s 21 percent increase would present a substantial burden on all consumers, especially those on a fixed income.

But the EIA estimate may turn out to be overly optimistic for consumers. National Grid, one of the region’s largest utilities, has filed with state regulators a request for a rate increase as high as 24 percent for this winter.

Q. What about oil heat?

A. The three-month average price of a gallon of home heating oil in Massachusetts in the winter of 2022 was $4.32, according to EIA data. As of Sept. 6, the average cost of a gallon of home heating oil was $4.73, about 10 percent higher than last winter, according to state Department of Energy Resources data.

But keep in mind home heating oil users have already seen an astounding 57 percent increase in price in the winter of 2022, compared with the previous year, according to EIA data.

Q. What about electric heat?

A. The EIA data show that an increase of 12 percent occurred in the winter of 2022 in New England, compared to the previous year. And it goes on to forecast a 17 percent increase for the same period in 2023.

Again, two consecutive year double-digit increases.

And it could be far worse. National Grid this week filed for a stunning 64 percent increase in its rate for electricity.

Q. What’s the best way to save on heating costs?

A. Use less energy by turning the thermostat down. The Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat at 68 degrees or lower when you’re home and awake, and 60 degrees when nobody is home or you are asleep. That alone could save you 10 percent, the DOE says. (A programmable thermostat can help you control your settings.)

Eversource, the region’s largest utility, says you can reduce your natural gas and electricity heating costs by about 60 percent by turning your thermostat down from 75 degrees to 65 degrees.

Q. Other steps I can take?

A. Stop the leaks, especially around windows and doors. Get a no-cost home energy assessment from MassSave, which is sponsored by the state’s utility companies and funded with surcharges on utility bills.

Q. Can I get a “price protection” plan?

A. Yes, contact your oil supplier to discuss two varieties: cap or fixed price. If you get a cap, the price you pay per gallon can’t exceed a certain level. Of course, the cap doesn’t come free. You have to pay your supplier for it. If you purchase a “fixed price” protection plan, you are basically betting that the price of oil will rise over the course of your contract and your supplier must absorb that increase. But, if the price drops, you lose because you don’t partake in those savings.

Q. What’s a “budget plan”?

A. Most oil dealers and utilities will project your costs for a full year and allow you to divide that by 12 and pay the same amount monthly. It makes getting through the winter a little more affordable.

Q. What about assistance?

A. Financial assistance is available, but it requires navigating a somewhat complicated system. But you don’t have to do it alone. There is help available. If you or someone you know needs help, one good source is the network of community action agencies arrayed across the state. Here’s a listthat includes every city and town in the state. And here’s a state websitefor information on assistance. Act now, while you have time.

Q. What kind of assistance is available?

A. The “low income home energy assistance program,” commonly known as “fuel assistance,” is available to homeowners and renters, including renters who don’t get separately billed for heat. Eligibility is based on income and household size. For example, a household of four qualifies with an income up to about $81,500.

Advocates for low-income residents worry the amount of assistance this winter will be substantially less than last year, when fuel assistance benefited from the one time infusion of $4.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan, a pandemic relief package.

Fuel assistance funding is now back to its prepandemic level of about $4 billion a year. An analysis by the National Consumer Law Center says low-income consumers could receive about one-quarter less in assistance than last winter. Advocates are now lobbying Congress for more funding.

Q. Will electric and gas utilities offer assistance?

A. Companies including Eversource and National Grid offer forgiveness of past-due balances and discounted rates for eligible low-income families. And every household, regardless of income, can reach out to the utilities and set up a payment plan on a past due amount. As long as the agreed-upon payments are made, service won’t be cut off.

Q. What are the rules on shutting off electric or gas?

A. Low-income families remain protected against shutoffs if they are seriously ill or have a baby under 12 months old at home. Elders also are protected against shutoff.

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