U.S. consumers paid $14 billion more for their energy needs during the winter of 2013-2014 compared to the previous winter, according to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The cost of energy affects people and businesses across the country. Consumers are affected by both the price they pay per unit of electricity or fuel for transportation and heating and the volume of each energy commodity they demand. In much of the U.S., demand for energy increases during winter months. The winter season often sees prices increase as well, as more expensive supply is needed to meet consumer demand.
The winter of 2013-2014 was no exception, according to the EIA's data. U.S. consumers spent $14 billion more for energy during the fourth quarter of 2013 and first quarter of 2014 compared to the previous winter. This amounts to an increase of 4.4%, or a 0.1% increase when measured as a share of disposable income.
The biggest drivers of the increase in consumer energy costs were higher expenditures for electricity, natural gas, heating oil and propane. Electricity expenditures increased $7.9 billion, or 10%, last winter compared with the previous winter. Much of the increased cost of electricity came as a result of increased costs for natural gas, a key fuel used for electric power generation. Constraints on interstate natural gas pipelines drive fuel prices up as demand increases. Throughout much of the northeast region, interstate natural gas pipelines reach their maximum flow rates on an increasing number of winter days. When the pipelines begin to fill, the price of natural gas delivered into the constrained region increases. Ultimately, when the pipelines have reached their maximum capacity, no more natural gas can be bought at any price.
The price of natural gas also affects consumers directly, as consumers also rely upon natural gas for space heating and applications like drying. EIA's data show that consumer expenditures for natural gas increased by $5.8 billion, or 16%, last winter compared with the previous winter.
Expenditures for the other major heating fuels -- oil and propane -- also increased by $6.0 billion, or 27%, over the previous winter. As EIA notes, heating oil and propane are used predominantly for space heating and are used to heat a relatively small number of homes, but their use is concentrated in the Northeast -- the area of the country that experienced the coldest weather this winter. Propane consumers experienced not only price spikes but even shortages during the coldest parts of the season.
As costly as the past winter was, the increase in consumer energy costs would have been even higher if transportation-related costs had not decreased significantly. In fact, transportation accounts for the largest single share of U.S. consumers' energy budget -- often over two-thirds of energy expenditures during the summer driving season, and over half of energy expenditures even in the winter. But transportation fuel expenses decreased by $5.8 billion, or 3%, last winter compared with the previous winter. EIA cites reductions in demand for gasoline due to winter storms that reduced driving.
Weather is a significant factor affecting winter energy costs -- but policies and infrastructure also play major roles in shaping consumers' energy expenditures. What will next winter bring?