March 13, 2002

Recent Warm Weather Has Many Impacts

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The incredibly warm late fall and winter period of the current school year has had an impact on more than just the comfort of Ithaca residents.

It has affected various aspects of utility rates, consumer buying and a series of other industries that thrive on winter snowfall, according to University officials.

Perhaps the most apparent impact Marc Wysocki, lecturer in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences stated, “can be felt in the cheaper electric bills consumers have to pay this year because of less net accumulation of heating degree days.”

Degree days is a meteorological index that gives power companies an idea of how much power is consumed in order to heat a house during the winter months.

“My electric bill is much lower this year than it has been during previous Februarys and Januarys and again going by heating and cooling degree days; they have been very low in terms of heating degree days,” Wysocki said.

Heating Degree Days (HDD) are the primary criteria utility companies use to estimate electric bills. “They are an estimation of the power consumption needed to maintain the indoor temperature of a house at 65 degrees Fahrenheit,” Wysocki said. “With cutbacks in personnel, power companies are no longer able to check electric meters monthly. Instead, they are generally read four times a year, so they have to kind of estimate power consumption using heating degree days.”

However, each customer’s electric bill is then calibrated based on past electric history.

“What [power companies] do is just simply go by your past history that you’ve had for all your Februarys since you have been living in the house and they kind of go by what your bills have been like and then they look at your heating degree days and based on them they estimate what your power consumption has been when they come and read the meter then they make some final adjustments on the next bill,” Wysocki said.

Heating degree days during the month of January totaled 1048, 268 days below normal, according to Keith Eggleston, climatologist at the Northeast Climate Center.

“Below normal heating degree day accumulations began in October when 80 heating degree days less than normal were accumulated,” Eggleston said. “Since then the magnitude of deviation from normal has increased dramatically with November accumulating 186 less heating degree days than normal and December accumulating 244 less heating degree days than normal.”

With a normal net accumulation of about 3477 heating degree days from October until February, the below average accumulation of heating degree days this year has resulted in lower heating bills throughout the Northeast.

Though the bills have benefited the consumer dramatically, utility companies have not benefited from the consumer’s savings, according to Wysocki.

Due to a forecast for a colder than normal winter, released at the end of September, utility companies purchased more fuel than normally bought. This extraneous fuel, because of the warmer winter, has not been utilized.

“Utility companies are taxed for the fuel they do not use, that is why they do not benefit from having a surplus of fuel during the winter time. This lack of fuel consumption during the winter adversely affects the utility companies, which despite consumer savings, also adversely affects the economy,” Wysocki said.

Other aspects of the economy have also been adversely affected by the mild-late autumn weather and warm winter weather.

“The sales of snow shovels have suffered great losses during the warm year,” Wysocki said. “If it isn’t warm during the fall, consumers wait to buy jackets, snow shovels, etc. This year, the fall was warmer than normal snow did not fall until late in December, so consumers waited to buy winter supplies and clothing. This kind of consumer response can have a detrimental effect on the retail industry.”

Management at the local Ithaca Kmart, on South Meadow Street, responded with similar concerns about the lack of snow fall and cold weather by describing this year’s sales as, “sporadic at times during the brief snowfalls but otherwise quite lacking.”

Other aspects of typical winter industry have also been impacted by the warm winter.

“Most ski resorts here in New York State have not suffered terribly because night time temperatures have been consistently below freezing. This has allowed the resorts to maintain their slopes open with artificial snow those resorts further south, such as in Pennsylvania are the ones who are really suffering but climatologically speaking, those are too far south anyway,” he said.

A second impact accompanying the mild winter weather has been an increased fear of the consequences of a severe drought.

“Drought has also accompanied the mild winter,” Wysocki said. “This has been one of the few unusual winter droughts and though little if any impact has been felt during the winter; when summer rolls around people will feel the deficit of water.”

Eggleston stated that “though Ithaca itself is not amidst a severe drought, the rest of the Northeast — especially New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the New York City area is.”

In New York City reservoirs have dropped to 48 percent of capacity.

According to Wysocki, because of the winter drought, cities throughout the northeast have saved tremendously on salt and winter maintenance by saving on the pay for extra hours.

“The general impact of the warm weather on the economy is not yet certain until spring comes,” Wysocki said.

The net impact is the result of a large sum of factors: consumer savings, utility company profits and losses, retail losses and city savings on salt and winter maintenance crews. Nevertheless, the long term effects are likely to be felt by the aggravating drought, water rationing, agricultural repercussions and perhaps the higher cooling bills of summer, if the warm trend continues, according to Wysocki.

Archived article by David Andrade