Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The coldest winter in more than a decade has depleted the Portland area’s supply of dry firewood, forced residents to pay more for heating fuels and prompted thousands statewide to seek financial assistance with paying heating bills.
Clint Farnham unwraps a pallet of pea coal Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. The Paris Farmers Union in Portland is running out of coal, wood pellets and bio bricks.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
The number of Mainers requesting emergency heating assistance through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is more than twice what it was a year ago at this time, a state official said.
The cost of the most commonly used heating fuels has increased in Maine since the winter began, according to a Governor’s Energy Office report issued Wednesday. Since October, the statewide average per-gallon price of heating oil has increased 27 cents a gallon to $3.80, kerosene is up 26 cents to $4.20, and propane has increased 60 cents to $3.25 a gallon, it said.
Area residents who normally use firewood to heat their homes say they have been forced to turn to more expensive materials, such as pressed-wood bricks.
“There’s no seasoned wood in the area right now,” said Sherri Kinney, a Gorham resident who visited the Paris Farmers Union store in Portland Wednesday with her husband, Alan, to buy pressed-wood “BioBricks” as a substitute fuel. “It’s tough, especially for people on disability who don’t have a lot of money, like we are.”
HARSHEST WINTER IN A DECADE
This has been the coldest winter in more than a decade, according to the National Weather Service.
As of midnight Tuesday, Portland had experienced 3,569 heating degree days since July 1, according to meteorologist Tom Hawley at the National Weather Service office in Gray. That number is higher than the average over the past 30 years – 3,505 heating degree days for the same period – and much higher than during the stretch of relatively mild winters Portland has experienced over the past decade.
“It looks like ‘cold’ is the watchword,” Hawley said. “We’re just staying cold.”
The most recent season in which heating degree days exceeded 3,569 from July 1 to Jan. 22 was 2002-03, with 3,681, he said.
Heating degree days reflects energy demand for heating, and indicate how cold a winter is. The higher the number of heating degree days, the more energy is needed to warm homes and offices. The number represents the amount by which the average daily temperature has fallen below 65 degrees. For example, a day that has an average temperature of 35 would add 30 heating degree days to the season total.
The high temperature in Portland on Wednesday was 17 degrees – well below the normal high of 31 for Jan. 22.
Sub-freezing temperatures are expected to continue for at least another week, with Thursday and Friday expected to be the coldest days with highs in Portland in the mid-teens, Hawley said.
HEATING HELP NEEDED
As of Jan. 16, the Maine State Housing Authority had granted emergency heating assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to 1,222 households, up from 529 during the same period a year earlier, authority spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said.
The unusually high demand threatens to deplete the state’s yearly allocation of federal funds, said Mike Tarpinian, president and CEO of the Opportunity Alliance, which processes heating assistance applications in Cumberland County.
“My concern is, come late February or early March, will there be any money left?” Tarpinian said.
In all, the authority has allocated about $15.5 million in regular and emergency heating assistance to more than 25,000 households, she said. That’s a little less than half the $32 million available for the entire winter.
The Opportunity Alliance usually processes about 1,000 applications for assistance each month from November through March, Tarpinian said. This year, it has been processing about 1,500 a month, he said.
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On the side of an iced-over wheelhouse, Larry Rich of Portland prepares to throw a line as the Black Beauty approaches dock on the Portland waterfront on Wednesday morning while returning from an overnight fishing trip.
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer