Hate to break it to you, but your heating bill is going to be higher than usual this winter. A lot higher.

Xcel Energy, one of two investor-owned electric utilities in the state and the main provider in the Denver metro area, predicts their Colorado customers will see an average increase of $28 on their monthly natural gas bill this winter compared to last winter. Additionally, a report released by the Energy Information Administration in October projected U.S. households that use natural gas for heat will spend an average of $746 on heating this winter (October through March)—a spike of 30 percent compared to last winter.

This expected increase is very worrisome, says Denise Stepto, chief communications officer at Energy Outreach Colorado, a nonprofit that helps Coloradans pay their energy bills. “Natural gas,” Stepto explains, “has typically been an affordable commodity for households.” Over the last year, though, Coloradans have struggled to pay this cost because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. About 738,000 residents had a hard time paying for basic necessities as a result of COVID-19, according to a survey released in October 2021 by the Colorado Health Institute. And from April 2020 to the beginning of 2021, Energy Outreach Colorado saw about a 46 percent increase in call volume from residents concerned about paying their heating bill, according to Stepto.

Now, with heating prices expected to climb, Stepto feels there’s a real risk some Coloradans will be disconnected from services because they won’t be able to afford their bills. In order to help, we answered your questions about what’s driving the surge in cost and how to save on heat this season.

What is causing the increase in heating costs?

Don’t blame utility companies for this surge; blame the economy.

“We purchase natural gas at a wholesale rate, and then we pass that directly along to our customers with no markup,” says Kelly Flenniken, director of community relations for Xcel Energy in Colorado. That means the projected surge in heating costs–not just in Colorado but across the country–is primarily due to the soaring cost of natural gas. There are a number of reasons for this price hike, including labor shortages and material scarcities that impact the natural gas sector, as well as general inflation throughout the economy, says Peter Rosenthal, head of power & North American natural gas at Energy Aspects, a research consultancy.

Projections for winter heating costs were even higher two months ago, Rosenthal points out. In fact, Xcel initially predicted its residential Colorado customers would see a 71.56 percent increase in their monthly bill this winter. Last week, that figure was revised to 37.4 percent because milder-than-expected weather in November and December led to less concern about the overall supply of natural gas. As a result, prices have dropped about one-third from their high two months ago, says Rosenthal.

That means come January, customers may start to see relief on their bills from declining gas prices, according to Keith Hay, director of policy at Colorado Energy Office. Indeed, Flenniken predicts that Xcel customers’ monthly bills will drop about $4 by the end of March 2022.

Even with that decline, however, overall energy costs will be significantly higher this winter than last winter.

What programs are available to help me pay my heating bill?

Xcel customers can call 1-800-895-4999 for information and support, including programs, incentives, and rebates as well as resources to help make their homes or buildings as energy efficient as possible.

Coloardans who have their heat shutoff or who are worried about affording their heating costs (whether they use Xcel or not) can call 1-866-432-8435 for help. Stepto also encourages qualified residents to apply for the Colorado Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), a federally funded program that helps residents pay a portion of their winter home heating costs.

Are there things I can do to save money on my heating bill?

To save energy–and therefore money–on your bill, Flenniken suggests the following:

  • Lower your thermostat. Aim to keep it around 68 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Reduce the temperature while you’re gone and also while you’re sleeping.
  • Open your drapes and blinds on sunny days. This will allow that strong Colorado sun to naturally heat your home. When it’s dark, or if the sun isn’t shining, close your drapes and blinds.
  • Turn your ceiling fan in a clockwise direction. This will push warm air down, make your living space feel more comfortable, and in turn cut costs on your bill.
  • Keep interior doors open. This allows air to circulate freely in your home and helps maintain consistent temperatures.