La Niña developing off the coast of Chile could bring moisture to a parched Inland Northwest this winter, more snow to area ski resorts – and higher energy bills to homeowners.
Over the past 30 to 50 years, La Niña – sustained periods of cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific – typically has meant cooler and wetter weather for the Northwest.
“That would be good, setting up the hydrological year,” said Greg Koch, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Spokane office.
After “a good, wet October and November last year,” Eastern Washington and North Idaho have been pretty dry this year, Koch said. Since Jan. 1, drought monitors show Spokane is 3.14 inches below normal precipitation and Lewiston, Idaho, is 4.86 inches below normal.
But while a little more snow than usual in the mountains would be welcomed, a colder-than-normal winter could further burden low-income residents struggling to pay heating bills.
The federal Energy Information Administration is expecting natural gas prices nationally to rise by 10 percent this winter.
The picture is brighter in Spokane. Avista customers will pay lower prices for natural gas this winter because of ample supplies, more storage capacity and better hedging practices. A steep electricity rate increase sought by Avista wouldn’t hit until next March, if approved by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
Meanwhile, however, Avista spokeswoman Debbie Simock said a 6 percent rate drop for natural gas would save the average homeowner about $5.32 a month, lowering the bill to $83.49.
But next March Avista wants regulators to let it raise its natural gas rates 2.27 percent to recapture costs such as system upgrades and maintenance. This would add a $1.93-a-month increase to the average homeowner bill, though still less than what natural gas customers now pay.
In Idaho, Avista seeks a 4.6 percent rate reduction for natural gas, or about $3.65 less per month. Idaho residents typically use less natural gas and would have an average monthly bill of $75.14.
For electricity, Avista’s request for a 15.85 percent rate increase in Washington would raise the average customer’s monthly bill $10.07 a month to $69.21. Idaho approved Avista’s request for a 2.2 percent increase effective Oct. 1, increasing the average residential customer’s monthly bill $1.04 a month to $70.42.
Inland Power and Light increased its rates in April 6.5 percent to about $68.90 a month for the average rural residential customer. Last week the price of a barrel of crude oil topped $84 as the Energy Information Administration predicted heating oil customers face a 22 percent increase. Those prices are based on information from the East Coast, which has 83 percent of all oil-heat homes. The fuel sold and burned in those oil furnaces is imported through Louisiana.
Most of the heating oil burned in Spokane homes is sent through a pipeline from Eastern Montana refineries. The cost is based on a slightly different pricing scheme, according to Lea Gaskill of the Oil Heat Institute of Washington. Prices will rise however, and with a colder winter forecasted, oil customers should brace for double-digit price increases.
Meanwhile, an Athol, Idaho, businessman is selling firewood as fast as he can deliver it. Shane Smith of Blacksmith Farms expects to sell 7,400 cords of wood this season for many of the region’s fireplaces and woodstoves.
The price for a cord of wood ranges from $135 for white pine to $185 for western larch, Smith said. He gets his raw logs from lumber mills and contractors.
Smith said he’s limited, not so much by the time it takes to cut and split a cord of wood, but the “highway time” it takes to deliver it.
“I can’t buy trucks quick enough,” Smith said.
No matter how a home is heated, there are those who cannot afford it. A recent report by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations found that as few as one in five jobs in the Northwest is keeping up with the cost of living.
Last year, Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs distributed $4.8 million in federal heating assistance to 9,838 households. An additional $600,000 in emergency funds, most of which was raised through the contributions of utility ratepayers, was given out last year in Spokane.
In Kootenai County, the Community Action Partnership distributed $775,555 in federal heating assistance to 2,542 families.
Still, many who requested help had to go without, according to representatives of both agencies.
“Federal aid only represents about 20 percent of the need statewide,” said Bruce Yasutake, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program manager for the Washington Department of Community Trade and Economic Development.
Yet federal funding for low-income energy assistance is expected to decline in fiscal 2008. The Bush administration’s proposed budget would cut funding to $1.78 billion from $2.1 billion, and the president has said he would veto an attempt by Congress to maintain or increase heating assistance above 2007 levels.
Whether low-income families needing heating assistance actually get it, at least they have homes to heat. Nearly 1,200 people in Spokane and 341 in North Idaho do not.
This winter, the Spokane Human Resources Department is asking social services agencies to again become “warming centers” when temperatures plunge dangerously low between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28.
The department is asking the City Council to approve raising the temperature at which warming centers would be activated from 5 degrees to 10 degrees. Warming center sites would augment the 516 emergency shelter beds currently available in the city.
The shelters are already filled or nearly so, according to Ed McCarron, director of the House of Charity, which sleeps 108 homeless men.
“There’s not a hotel in town that has the occupancy we have,” McCarron said.
Coeur d’Alene also is considering an emergency warming shelter ordinance.
Of course, there are some for whom a La Niña winter would be more than welcome. The region’s skiers and ski resorts are hoping for snow early and often.
Silver Mountain Resort in Kellogg, Idaho, has been “glading,” or thinning treed areas, doubling skiing terrain in its Chair 2 Basin, spokeswoman Kathy Jerome said. By early March, the resort also will open its Silver Rapids Indoor Waterpark, which includes the “FlowRider” surfing machine, providing sustained 5-foot waves.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort, near Sandpoint, is constructing two new chairlifts, increasing uphill capacity by 28 percent, communications manager Jennifer Ekstrom said. A high-speed detachable quad chairlift will be capable of carrying 2,000 people per hour from Schweitzer Village 1,063 feet uphill, while the Lakeview Triple will transport 1,200 people per hour to the top of Schweitzer Bowl.
Staff writer John Stucke contributed to this report.