Father and Daughter Sitting in the Kitchen with Bills

Did you know, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. is the number one producer of natural gas in the world, leading Russia, Iran, Canada, and Qatar?  A basic lesson in economics reminds us that when you have a large supply of something, the price is usually pretty low. Natural gas is no different. Right now, one million cubic feet of natural gas trades for less than $3.00.  But how much is a million cubic feet of a gas?  Convert it to gallons and you’re looking at around 32 gallons – the equivalent of a garbage pail you’d put out for your trash collector. That’s a lot of energy for a pretty small price.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Energy prices in the U.S. used to spike when global events, often in the Middle East, would cause a disruption in supply. Now anything from natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and other unusual changes in weather, capacity constraints from lack of infrastructure or a curve in the supply chain can also interrupt our energy supply. And when there’s a low supply of anything – and in this case energy – the price can get pretty high.

In the last decade, as more natural gas has been produced here in the U.S., the cost of this commodity has plummeted and has also continued to remain relatively low. Experts predict they’ll stay low for a long time and that means utility bills will continue to decrease. That’s good news for small businesses, families and especially low-income households. Individuals and families aren’t just saddled with decisions about whether to go grocery shopping, pick up that medication they need or make rent on time. Often times it’s wondering how they’ll pay the energy bill and keep the lights on.

There is help, and that’s because paying the bills isn’t just hard for a few, it’s hard for a lot of people. Whether it’s food, healthcare or energy, Benefits.gov, a government-run organization has made it their mission to “reduce the expense and difficulty of interacting with the government while increasing citizen access to benefits information.” Their site includes a Benefit Finder with information on energy assistance called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides support to families for their home energy costs. As they point out, “Home heating is a high-cost basic necessity. For people with low incomes, the decision to pay the utility bill may mean deciding between being warm in the winter or having well-balanced meals.”

In addition to LiHEAP, local utilities also have programs to help people who are having problems paying their energy bills. While each utility is different, it never hurts to look up what programs they can offer, from billing assistance to home energy audits, there are other ways to save.

There are also several state-specific charitable groups that help raise money for families who need assistance with their energy bills. One organization noted total residential natural gas bills for the six winter months (November through April) have dropped from a high of $745 in the 2005-2006 heating season to $475 in the 2012-2013 heating season – a reduction of about 36 percent. That could mean a 50 percent reduction if you follow the trend through to today.  That dramatic decline in natural gas utility bills has made a big difference to many vulnerable seniors, families and disabled people – or simply for people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. For some households that were unable to pay their utility bills in years past when the price of natural gas was much higher, today they have a better chance of paying those bills due to the availability and price of fuel.

Now, as winter turns to spring, we can thank low-cost natural gas for allowing us to turn down our furnaces and turn up our air conditioners with confidence knowing that low-cost energy will get us through the summer months.