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Frigid weather, high prices have DeKalb County feeling effects of propane shortage

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 11:39 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 11:59 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
Gary Metcalf of Conserv FS attaches a hose from his truck to a propane tank before filling it Monday at a DeKalb business.

DeKALB – Crystal Kleppetsch is bracing for a January heating bill of about $2,000, more than triple what it normally costs to heat her farmhouse in rural DeKalb.

Kleppetsch uses propane to heat her home, making her one of millions affected by the propane shortage sweeping the country.

“We’re doing everything we can to figure it out,” Kleppetsch said. “We keep [the thermostat] at 63 degrees and wear extra layers. We’ve thought about cutting back on groceries and going to the food pantry, getting rid of a cellphone bill or the internet.”

Frigid temperatures and an already limited supply of propane have caused prices to soar in swatches across the country, including DeKalb County.

The propane supply already had been depleted because the wet fall caused farmers to use more propane than usual to dry their crops before putting them in storage. Compounding the shortage, the Cochin pipeline, which provided propane to Minnesota suppliers, was shut down during the fall.

Then the wave of subzero temperatures hit the Midwest, increasing demand for the liquefied petroleum gas. Increased demand and shorter supply resulted in higher prices for the 5.5 million people the U.S. Department of Energy estimates use propane. Most of those customers are in the Midwest and the South.

Brock Bentson, energy manager for Conserv FS, a company that supplies propane to more than 660 DeKalb County homes and businesses, said prices have risen from about $3 a gallon to $5 a gallon.

“I have never seen it this bad,” Bentson said.

Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday declared a propane supply emergency in Illinois. The declaration means travel regulations for propane truck drivers will be loosened so they can drive to other states to fill their tanks. They will also be able to drive more in a 24-hour period.

The declaration could help retailers such as Conserv FS keep up with the demand.

“We’re currently able to get enough propane, but we have to go farther and farther to get it,” Bentson said.

Normally, Conserv FS is able to get propane from suppliers in Rockford, Morris and Janesville, Wis., but the shortage has forced them to get shipments from as far away as Hattiesburg, Miss.

AmeriGas, the largest propane supplier in America, has been rotating propane delivery in select markets across the country, according to spokesman Simon Bowman. He couldn’t say what markets were affected because of how quickly it changes, but said he expects things to return to normal in a couple of weeks when temperatures rise.

A couple of weeks would bring Kleppetsch, an AmeriGas customer, dangerously close to an empty tank.

It takes about 400 gallons of propane a month to heat the home Kleppetsch rents on Gurler Road. Last winter, she said her propane bills were around $600 a month. So she was ill-prepared for a $1,350 bill for December.

She has about three weeks’ worth of propane left in her tank, but will have to pay the $850 remaining from her December bill before she can refill it.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I have no other choice than to use propane.”  

Even if she and her husband can piece together the money to pay for a previous month, it’s unclear how expensive the next batch of propane will be. Last week she was told her tank could be filled for $5.50 a gallon, but this price is hardly guaranteed because of the frequent price fluctuation.

Bentson also thinks relief should be on the way once temperatures go up and demand goes down, allowing propane reserves to rebuild.

“I think the industry will be able to bounce back,” Bentson said. “I’m not sure what the low price will be, but we won’t see prices like we do now.”

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