Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: PNM prices expected to be lower this winter

Albuquerque resident Ed Benavidez says this winter’s natural gas bills aren’t hammering his pocketbook yet, but he’s ready for things to get worse.

With cold weather and snow flurries expected this weekend, they just might. But Public Service Company of New Mexico has a little good news to offset the bad.

The company estimates more natural gas will be used this January than last, but expects the average residential bill to be less than last year’s.

That’s because January’s per-therm cost of natural gas dropped by 19 percent from last year for PNM customers.

This January’s average bill will likely come in around $116, according to PNM. Last January it was $129.

Company spokeswoman Susan Sponar said the drop was due to a warmer winter in other parts of the country driving down demand for gas, thus lowering its price.

The company also estimates that average bills in February and March will be less than what they were last year. They’ll still be in the $91 to $110 range.

PNM encourages its customers in numerous ways to cut down on their natural gas bills.

That includes weatherizing your home, sealing off unused rooms and lowering the heat during the night.

“Being more watchful” is how Benavidez describes it.

He keeps his home’s doors closed. At night, he puts his thermostat at 70 degrees, down from 75.

If those measures don’t cut it, there is help for families struggling with bills, as long as their household income meets certain requirements.

Last year, 5,100 households got assistance through PNM’s Good Neighbor Fund, which gives grants to households fighting high heating costs, Sponar said.

This year’s numbers aren’t yet in, but more than $700,000 has been raised.

Another option – the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – is creating some confusion.

That’s because the grants available through the program are far less than they were last year, said Betina Gonzales McCracken, communications director with the New Mexico Human Services Department.

Instead of households getting one-time grants of about $417 as they did last year, they can expect $127 this year, she explained.

Blame the funding.

Gonzales McCracken said that last year, the state added $23 million in emergency funds to the federal funding, which has held steady at about $10 million for the past four years.

This year, the Human Services Department might get $2 million in state help, she said.

“While the price of gas is going up on a regular basis,” she said, “they (the federal government) have not increased funding for this program.”

Last year, a record number of households received assistance through the program – 71,794, Gonzales McCracken said.

“We’re assuming we’re going to serve the same amount of people as last year,” she said. “With less money, the benefit is going to be a little bit less.”

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