- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Balmy weather this winter could mean a big break in heating costs for Wisconsin utility customers.

The mild start to the heating season is combining with the lowest natural gas prices in 16 years to give consumers relief, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1OEE2Zx ) reported.

Two years ago, bitter cold kept furnaces going nonstop. But heating costs this winter could be up to 50 percent below two winters ago.

Milwaukee-based We Energies says it’s possible its 1.1 million customers will pay less for heating this winter than in any of the past 15 winters.

“It’s definitely trending in that direction,” We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said.

We Energies already was forecasting that heating costs would fall this year to about $489 for a typical customer. But that estimate assumed Wisconsin would see normal weather and that natural gas prices would stay where they were in October. We Energies’ winter heating outlook could be updated as soon as next month.

Based on temperatures through Friday, this month ranks as the third-warmest December on record in Milwaukee and Madison, according to forecasters at the National Weather Service in Sullivan.

Across Wisconsin, temperatures have been at least 12 to 14 degrees higher on average than December 2014.

Meanwhile, natural gas prices have dropped to their lowest levels since 1999.

“It’s been a huge benefit in what would be our first six weeks of winter,” Manthey said. “And customers should be positioned well for the rest of the winter even if we go to normal or colder winter conditions.”

November also was mild, which helped drive down heating costs as much as 40 percent from November 2014 for customers of Madison-based Alliant Energy, spokeswoman Annemarie Newman said.

The difference in heating bills is striking compared with two winters ago when a huge mass of arctic air plunged southward into the U.S., said Kerry Spees, spokesman for Wisconsin Public Service Corp., an electric and natural gas utility serving northeastern and north-central Wisconsin.

“Our customers can expect bills to be 25 percent to 30 percent less than last year, but that’s about half of what they were paying in the Polar Vortex year, the year before,” Spees said. “That’s a significant difference for customers.”

For a typical We Energies customer, savings of more than $300 are possible compared with the winter of two years ago.

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Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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