Possibly the biggest factor effecting your electric bill is the weather. It not only directly influences how much you use to heat or cool your home but also effects the demand, supply, and ultimately the price of energy on the wholesale markets. In our What’s the Weather? series, we’ll track weather forecasts and events to see how they impact your energy bills and how that information can help you save.
In this installment, we’ll update La Niña’s status and check in with the Arctic Oscillation.
What’s so important about La Niña?
El Niños and La Niñas are the two extremes of a weather phenomena known as the “El Niño Southern Oscillation” or ENSO. ENSO depends (in part) on the sea surface temperatures (SSTs) along the equator from the international date line (180° latitude) eastwards to South America. When SSTs are warmer than average, an El Niño forms. When SSTs are cooler than normal, a La Niña forms. The degree range is much, about no more than 3 to 6 degrees °F above or below normal temperature. But this area of ocean water is large so warm or cool water temperatures are enough to change wind patterns that produce global effects. This includes increasing or decreasing the risk for Atlantic hurricanes.
In an El Niño year, warm Pacific waters shift storm formations eastwards in the north Pacific. This pushes warmer winter weather across the US with the southern states having cool but wetter winter weather. In a La Niña year, cooler than normal temperatures chill northern states while warm but dry conditions move into Texas and the southern states.
She’s Not There
Up until about a month ago, cold SSTs in the Pacific indicated the presence of a La Niña. But it was so fragile and poorly that recently NOAA determined the lady had transitioned to “ENSO-neutral”. NOAA predicts that ENSO-neutral will hang on until spring and then (~50% chance) change into an El Niño in the fall. ENSO-neutral is essentially the ENSO phenomena saying “meh” and allows other global weather systems to exert stronger influences. In the US, that means warmer temperatures and higher rainfall to the southeast but colder than average winter temperatures to the upper midwest and northeast, including a visits from the Polar Vortex.
Except for remainder of this winter. And that’s partly because the Arctic Oscillation (AO) seems to be also saying “meh”.
The Arctic Oscillation
Like ENSO, the AO is composed of two extremes called positive and negative. How it works is the AO is formed by atmosphere circulating around the polar region at about 50° latitude. This blob of atmosphere is that very cold air we know as the Polar Vortex and it’s outer most edge is the Polar Jet. When high pressure systems south of the Polar Jet are strong enough to resist the atmospheric pressure of the Polar vortex, the AO is said to be positive. The higher the positive value, the weaker the pressure of the Polar Vortex, and the further north warm air can travel. This lets tropical storm systems travel further north, bringing more rain to places like Alaska, Scotland, and Scandinavia while southern places get drier. This helps the eastern US stay warmer but also makes Greenland colder.
If the Polar Vortex has higher pressure than the surrounding pressure systems, the Polar jet can push further south, bringing bitterly cold air down into places where winter is typically more mild, particularly the eastern US. Up north at the pole, wind velocity slackens, allowing sea ice to thicken. Of course, atmospheric pressure systems aren’t always evenly distributed across the globe, so there’s a lot of sloshing around the pole —sort of like water in a big bowl. During some moderately negative AO phases, the US will experience bitterly cold winter weather while norther Europe and Asia have warmer than average temperatures.
This year, the Polar vortex has been weak and cold temperatures have for the most part stayed in Europe and Asia. Currently, the AO is positive, however, it’s anticipated to turn negative in early March when a sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) is expected. An SSW is when the polar vortex’s westerly winds slow down, or stop, or even reverse direction. Ultimately, as the easterly winds draw towards the surface, they can cause cold snaps along the northern states, like New York. Two SSWs are par for the average winter. The second SSW already occurred at the end of January making the predicted one for March somewhat unusual. This SSW’s effects for the US are expected to be short lived — about two weeks. If you love snow, find some while you can. Temperatures are expected to return to above-normal for the rest of March.
What does this weather mean for your energy bill?
The average price of residential electricity declined from the November 2016 high of ¢12.75/kWh to ¢12.3/kWh in January, 2017. Temperatures in the lower 48 state averaged 7°F lower than normal and this has reduced natural gas prices this month, with demand falling across all sectors, including power burn. Henry Hub prices fell from $3.168/MMBtu to $2.767/MMBtu.
Apart from a brief interruption in the beginning of March, the above normal temperatures are expected to continue. If you have a fixed rate plate, the good news is that you’re likely going to use less energy heating your home and paying for that for the rest of the winter. If you’re on a variable rate plate, you’ll probably get to enjoy some savings both by reducing your usage and by paying a lower rate. Watch out for temperatures, natural gas, and electricity demand to rise by late spring as the average cost of electricity begins rising to a forecast high of ¢13/kWh by October.
If you’re thinking about finding a new energy plan, it’s no secret that nationwide electricity rates are slowly rising.Now is the time to sign on to a long term fixed rate plan that can lock in the current low rate —especially before air conditioning season starts because that’s where you’ll save the most money.