How to manage utility bills as soaring energy costs collide with 'volatile' winter

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Volatile weather is expected to intensify steep energy prices this winter, and utility experts say it is important for households to control their energy use and seek help for unaffordable bills.

"We're here to help," said Saunteel Jenkins, chief executive officer of The Heat and Warmth Fund, a Detroit nonprofit that provides energy assistance services. "We want to make sure families are healthy, safe and warm all winter."

Jenkins joined Tammy Bair, an energy and emergency services expert with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Dan Brudzynski, vice president of DTE Gas, at a Monday virtual news conference to talk about winter energy bills.

Experts warn energy prices will soar this winter for customers whose providers haven’t locked in prices for heating fuel such as propane and natural gas. Consumers whose providers haven't secured prices could spend 29% more for for natural gas and 5.5% more for electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Meanwhile, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologists expect La Niña weather conditions to persist in the northern hemisphere this winter. In Michigan, they expect the season to be warmer and wetter than usual.

Tips to control utility bills

But La Niña — a climate pattern during which strong trade winds push the polar jet stream northward — could usher in unpredictable weather, Brudzynski said, adding further stress to households that haven't locked in energy rates or already struggle with bills. He pointed to the above-average October temperatures and recent cold snap as an example.

"If the current pattern plays out, we will probably see a lot of volatility this winter," he said.

Brudzynski urged households to take the following steps to limit their energy bills:

  • Install a programmable thermostat.
  • Turn the heat down a few degrees, particularly when sleeping or away from home.
  • Insulate homes.
  • Block drafts in windows and doors.
  • Clean furnace filters.

Brudzynski also recommended households who heat with natural gas use the comparison tool at to see how their rates stack up against other providers'. People within DTE service territory may actually be serviced by another gas provider, he said.

According to the comparison tool, DTE charges about 29 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas. Most other providers charge more, and those that charge less have not locked in their rates.

"We find that customers sometimes are unaware that they may have switched from DTE, or they may have switched a while ago and it may have been at a different rate," Brudzynski said. "I would advise them to keep an eye on their rates going into the winter."

Heating help available

State and federal programs have more money available to help families pay bills this year, Bair said.

The State Emergency Relief program — which provides one-time payments to households facing financial emergencies, such as utility shutoffs — will give recipients about $300 more this year.

People who need help paying for electricity, natural gas and firewood are eligible for $1,150, up from $850. People who need help paying for propane and fuel oil are eligible for $1,500, up from $1,200.

People who receive State Emergency Relief benefits also can access programs that allow households to be placed on affordable payment plans and get help with winterizing homes to reduce utility costs.

There is more money available for these programs this year thanks to the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which sent an additional $238 million to the state. That, combined with a $146 million federal block grant for the heat assistance program, more than doubles the amount of money normally available for Michiganians.

Many of the state’s heating assistance programs are administered locally. Michigan residents can call 211 to learn more.

They also can call their utility providers, DTE's Brudzynski said.

"If you find it hard to stay ahead of the bills this winter, please contact us early," he said. "Get ahead of the curve, whether you get gas from us or electricity. Don't let things build up."