Perusing your natural gas and electric bills each month could help you be a more savvy energy user, which is good for you, other people, and the planet.
We Americans expect power and heat to be at our fingertips 24/7.
Every time you flip a light switch, push the television remote button or turn a gas range knob, you are anticipating immediate light, entertainment, or flames. Even while you are sleeping, your home is consuming energy; appliances and equipment are standing by ready to power up, digital displays are illuminating the dark, and heating and cooling systems are humming along.
All this instant gratification is taking an enormous toll on Earth, people, and the other living beings sharing the planet.
Extracting, transporting, refining, storing, and burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) is a dirty and dangerous business that is jeopardizing the health and well-being of people everywhere, especially the people who live near fossil fuel extraction sites, rail lines, refineries, pipelines, and power plants.
17.6 million Americans live within 1 mile of at least one of the 1.1 million active oil and gas wells that are spread across 34 states.1, 2 Millions more live near one or more of the 834 active coal mines on mountain tops and deep beneath the ground in 25 states.3 Others live in the vicinity of one of the 3,288 fossil fuel burning power plants distributed across the country.4
You could be one of these Americans and so could your relatives, friends, and coworkers.
Clearly, we need to get off burning fossil fuels but fossil fuels make our daily lives possible, at least for most Americans. So what can we do?
One thing that each one of us can do is to take responsibility for decreasing our fossil fuel use. Our homes present us with opportunities for consuming less energy and using it more wisely year after year. Even small changes can make a big impact. Imagine the energy savings if everyone in the United States turned their thermostats either off or at least down a few dgrees when they go to bed this winter.
In this 2-part post, we will explore how you can use your natural gas and electric bills to educate yourself about your energy use and to make smarter choices about when and how much energy you use in your home. We will start with natural gas bills and cover electric bills in the second post.
I live in California near the central coast and my utility providers are SoCalGas for natural gas and PG&E for electricity. Your bills may look different but I think the basics will be similar.
Natural Gas Consumption in the United States High-Level Overview
In 2016, natural gas accounted for 29% of the total energy consumption in the United States. Of that, 16% was used in our homes mostly for space heating, water heating, cooking, and clothes drying.5
After natural gas is extracted and processed, it moves through a series of pipelines to storage areas nearer to where it will be used. Large volumes of natural gas are stored underground in defunct oil and natural gas fields, salt caverns, and even aquifers. Smaller volumes are stored in above-ground tanks in either gas or liquid form.
What is a Therm of Natural Gas?
Residential natural gas is billed by the therm so you need to understand what constitutes a therm.
A therm is a unit of heat energy that is equal to 100,000 British thermal units (Btu) and is the equivalent of burning 100 cubic feet of natural gas. So what is a Btu? A British thermal unit is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.6, 7, 8 Many people, like me, will not be enlightened by these technical definitions so now what?
Fortunately, appliance manufacturers provide Btu information so you can get some idea of how much natural gas various items in your home consume per hour. You can find this information on the guides that came with the appliances or look it up on the Internet. Here are some ballpark Btu figures for common natural gas appliances.
- Range Burner – 5,000 to 18,000 Btu
- Clothes Dryer – 20,000 Btu
- Range Oven – 25,000 Btu
- Water Heater – 36,000 Btu
- Furnace – 60,000 to 120,000 Btu
As an example, you could run a 20,000 Btu rated dryer for about 5 hours for 1 therm of natural gas.
Gas appliances do not necessarily consume a consistent amount of natural gas when they are on. For instance, once a thermostat detects that the target temperature you set has been reached, your furnace will cycle on and off to maintain that temperature.
What Can You Learn from Reading Your Natural Gas Bill?
For this section, you will need a copy of your natural gas bill from last December. If you do not have a paper or digital copy, most if not all natural gas companies make bills available online. If you need to, take a break to go sign up, retrieve your bill, and then come back.
Now look at your bill and find the following or similar items.
This field indicates what rate schedule is being used to calculate your bill. You can look up rate schedules on your gas company’s website.
Your home’s location places you in a climate zone that gas companies use to estimate how much natural gas you and other customers in the same area will use during different seasons of the year.
The climate zone assigned to your home is used determine your baseline allowance, which is an amount of natural gas intended to cover the minimum basic needs of an average household. The allowance changes monthly. Not all gas companies use baseline allowances.
The number of days in the billing period is used in calculations on your bill.
Your natural gas usage is calculated by subtracting the previous month’s meter reading from the current month. The difference is the number of therms you actually used.
You may or may not find a billing factor on your bill. Gas companies with large territories use a multiplying factor to adjust for differences in elevation and delivery pressure to ensure all customers are charged equally. For example, last December, each therm of natural gas we used was multiplied by 1.050.
This monthly charge is to cover the cost of gas delivery including reading meters, billing, and payment processing. The amount is calculated by multiplying the number of days in the billing cycle by a fixed rate per day.
Therms Used and Rate per Therm
You are billed for the number of therms you used after the billing factor has been applied. If you used more therms than your baseline allowance, the additional therms are billed at a substantially higher rate per therm. Some companies use tier pricing, meaning as your usage goes up so does the rate per therm.
The rate per therm includes the monthly commodity price for the natural gas procured by the gas company and the infrastructure to deliver gas to your home.
State Regulatory Fee
As a customer, you are funding the public utilities commission that regulates natural gas companies in your state. This fee is calculated by multiplying therms by a fixed rate.
Public Purpose Surcharge
Surcharges on your bill cover financial assistance to low-income customers and energy efficiency programs. This fee is calculated by multiplying therms by a fixed rate.
Gas Usage History
Hopefully, your bill will have a handy chart that shows your total therms used each month over the past twelve months and a comparison with the same month in the prior year.
It is worth taking a few seconds to read the messages section as it contains information about new programs, rate changes, and rebates.
Establish Your Natural Gas Reduction Goal
Now that you have familiarized yourself with your bill and your natural gas consumption for last December, it is time to set a reduction goal for this December and decide what actions you are going to take to help you achieve your goal.
Here are a few easy suggestions to help get you started.
- Change the setting on your thermostat – set it lower than you normally do in the winter (higher for summer).
- Wear clothing layers inside.
- Wash your laundry in cold water.
- Take shorter showers or turn the water off while you soap up.
- Hang some or all of your laundry outside to dry (inside in inclement weather).
Get more ideas by reading Energy Awareness Month – 10 Energy Saving Tips.
When you get your December 2017 natural gas bill, compare it to last year. Did you use less or more gas? If it was more, you need to make more changes. Repeat this process each month.
I envision living in a country where all Americans use natural gas sparingly and then not at all. Where farmers grow food on their land and do not have natural gas fracking pads in their fields. Where drinking water aquifers are protected and not exempted from toxic fluid injection in the name of energy security. Where people can feel safe in their homes and not live in fear of pipeline and storage leaks, ruptures, and explosions.
What do you envision and what are you willing to do to make that vision come true?
In part two of this post, we will attempt to unravel the mysteries of our electric bills.
Featured Image at Top: Natural Gas Fracking Rig and Storage Tanks Adjacent to a Residential Neighborhood in Colorado – Photo Credit iStock/milehightraveler
- Energy Awareness Month – 10 Energy Saving Tips
- Energy Policy Act of 2005 – Fracking and Drinking Water
- ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth – Book Review
- Gasland – The Movies
- Reinventing Fire – Book Review
- What the Heck is Fracking?
- Why You Should Read Your Energy Bills – Electric
- 17.6 million Americans live close to active oil or gas wells, Phys.org, provided by Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, 08/23/17
- 34 states have active oil & gas activity in U.S. based on 2016 analysis, by Sam Rubright, DrPH, FracTracker Alliance, 03/23/17
- Annual Coal Report – U.S. Energy Information Administration, 11/03/16
- How many power plants are there in the United States? – U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Natural Gas Explained: Use of Natural Gas – U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Therm – Wikipedia
- British thermal Unit – Wikipedia
- Energy Units and Calculators Explained: British Thermal Units (Btu) – U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Aliso Canyon Oil and Natural Gas Storage Field – Wikipedia
- California Electric and Gas Utility Cost Report, California Public Utilities Commission, April 2017
- Maps – U.S. Energy Information Administration (maps showing wells, power plants, pipelines)
- Natural Gas Explained: Delivery and Storage of Natural Gas – U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Natural Gas Explained: What is Natural Gas – U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Today in Energy: Natural Gas Use Features Two Seasonal Peaks Per Year – U.S. Energy Information Administration (09/11/15)
- Toward Consistent Methodology to Quantify Populations in Proximity to Oil and Gas Development: A National Spatial Analysis and Review, by Eliza D. Czolowski, Renee L. Santoro, Tanja Srebotnjak, and Seth B.C. Shonkoff, Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2017
- Utility Ratemaking – Wikipedia
- What are Ccf, Mcf, Btu, and therms? How do I convert natural gas prices in dollars per Ccf or Mcf to dollars per Btu or therm? – U.S. Energy Information Administration