Jan. 06–This week’s bitter cold wave has triggered record-setting energy demands and dwindling natural gas supplies in Connecticut, driving up monthly energy bills for weary homeowners.
But as state residents dig out from this week’s snowstorm, pull out more sweaters and hunker-down for below-zero temperatures Saturday night, industry experts say heating oil isn’t a worry and delivery drivers are working around the clock to get it to homeowners.
“We absolutely, categorically do not have a [fuel oil] supply problem here,” Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, said of Connecticut’s current situation. But he added that home heating oil companies have been pushed to the limit to ensure customers are getting fuel they need.
While many have avoided spending too much time outside this week, heating oil delivery drivers have had no choice but to keep working through the cold.
“For the past week-and-a-half, they’ve been absolutely flat out,” Herb said Friday. Heating oil companies, like all other trucking-related industries, have been struggling in recent years with difficulties recruiting new drivers, industry officials said. But several Connecticut oil firms say they are managing to cope with the current cold wave, with drivers working overtime to service needy customers.
Officials at ISO-New England, operators of the region’s power grid, said energy demands during the recent arctic weather have placed major pressures on energy generators, forcing power companies to rely more on coal and oil to produce electricity.
Mitch Gross, spokesman for Eversource, said cold temperatures have “resulted in record-setting demand from Eversource gas customers here in Connecticut.”
“On Dec. 31, 2017, we delivered 414,133 MMBtu (millions of British thermal units, a measure of energy content) of natural gas to our Connecticut customers,” Gross said in an email. “The previous record of 402,944 MMBtu was set on Feb. 4, 2016,” he said, which was the last major Connecticut cold snap.
In Massachusetts on Jan. 1, Eversource saw its third-highest-ever demand for natural gas in that state, according to Gross.
Despite those pressures on Eversource, this state’s largest utility, Gross said the company’s system is managing to supply all its customers with their power needs. “We’re in good shape,” Gross said.
Energy industry officials have for years warned that inadequate pipeline capacity limits the amount of natural gas coming into New England during peak demand periods like this one. Several multi-billion-dollar proposals for new pipelines have been blocked or withdrawn in the last two years as a result of financing issues and opposition from environmental and consumer groups.
Herb said the current cold spell’s inadequate gas supply problems have triggered increased demands for heating oil.
“We’ve absolutely seen huge [institutional and industrial] users switching to fuel oil,” Herb said. He said big schools like the University of Connecticut, Yale University and Fairfield University, as well as a number of big industrial plants, are now using oil to power their heating systems.
Steve Sack, of Sack Energy, a major Connecticut fuel oil wholesaler, said those major users are now looking to purchase fuel oil on the spot market.
In some areas of the northeast, including portions of Pennsylvania and New York, major demand for fuel oil is creating shortage worries. But wholesalers and retail home heating oil suppliers say Connecticut isn’t experiencing the same problems.
The primary reason for Connecticut’s comfortable supply situation is that most of this state’s fuel oil comes into New Haven by barge and then is pumped up through the Buckeye pipeline to major portions of Connecticut. That avoids the kind of problems New York is having getting oil barges up the ice-choked Hudson River, Herb said.
“Right now, we’re having no issues with supply,” Sack said. He said areas of Connecticut that aren’t along the pipeline that runs from New Haven up through Springfield, Mass., are being supplied by tractor trailer trucks from the port or terminals along the pipeline.
Sack said wholesale fuel oil prices at New York’s harbor are now running at about $2.06 per gallon, which are “down a little bit right now” from earlier price levels.
Herb said his office is constantly monitoring the supply situation. He said he recently got a call from U.S. Department of Energy officials asking if the federal regional petroleum reserve should be released to help the energy situation.
“We told them no. … We did not need that,” Herb said.
Heating oil company drivers are being pushed to the max to keep getting fuel deliveries to residential customers who need them.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles normally limits those delivery drivers to 11 hour maximum shifts. But the agency issued an “emergency exemption” on Dec. 28 that “relieves motor carriers from compliance with the Maximum Driving Time Regulations” until Jan. 19.
Bruce Deitch, of Deitch Energy in Hartford, and Mike Sanzo, of Imperial Oil & Plumbing of South Windsor, both said their drivers are managing to keep up with the delivery demands of this cold spell.
Both also said their businesses, like all trucking-related industries, are having difficulty recruiting new drivers.
“Our industry over the last several years has been experiencing driver shortages,” said Herb. He said most of his organization’s nearly 600 members appear to be “one or two drivers down” from where they’d like to be.
“Millennials are harder to attract to the driving industry,” Herb said.
Sanzo said federal and state requirements for licensing commercial truck drivers have gotten tougher over the past decade, with increased safety training and more background checks. “There seem to be less and less drivers (available) every year,” Sanzo said.
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