Drake University student Sophie Van Zee is thankful that heat rises. Her bedroom is on the top floor of the house she rents with her two roommates, and this winter she’s expecting it to get chilly.
“Our house is very poorly insulated, so we already have to increase the heat quite a bit,” Van Zee said. “If the heat cost increases, we’re going to have some issues. We’re planning on using a lot of blankets.”
Van Zee isn’t alone. In early October, MidAmerican Energy released a statement warning customers to expect their natural gas bills to increase by 46-96% as market prices soar, forecasting a cold winter for many lower-income residents.
MidAmerican Energy is the primary natural gas provider for Drake and the surrounding neighborhoods. A resident paying the MidAmerican average as of Feb. 25, $47 per month, can expect their natural gas bill to increase by anywhere between 22 to 45 dollars every month because of rising natural gas prices. For lower-income residents, this can be harmful.
“Every time we see a jump like this in utilities, it hurts lower-income families much more than middle- or upper-income families, simply because they have less disposable income to start with,” said Anne Bacon, chief executive director of IMPACT Community Action Partnership.
IMPACT provides utility assistance to these residents, and Bacon anticipates a much higher demand for aid this year. While the organization has leftover federal assistance from federal COVID-19 aid, IMPACT has never been able to meet all of the aid requests, and they expect their funds to be exhausted by spring.
Many college students living off-campus can expect their bills to increase, a concern for those who rely on work-study or part-time jobs to pay the bills. Bacon includes them in her definition of low-income residents.
“If a college student is paying for their own utilities and they meet the income requirements, being a student does not preclude them from applying for assistance,” Bacon said. “I would urge them to do so.”
A renewable future
As Des Moines residents and Drake students face the prospect of a cold winter, Drake evaluates the function and sustainability of its own heating systems.
Drake uses two boilers to heat its central campus. The boilers use natural gas to convert water to steam, which is then channeled to around 40 buildings through a series of pipes.
This is part of a three-year contract with MidAmerican, of which Drake has one year remaining. In 2019, Drake purchased a fixed amount of natural gas from MidAmerican, which means the cost of heating Drake’s main campus will not be affected by these rising prices.
However, exterior buildings such as the Roger Knapp Tennis Center have separate meters that are not contracted. Those will be subject to increasing prices. Kevin Moran, executive director of facilities, is confident that these increased prices will not affect Drake’s budget.
This may change as soon as 2022, when Drake begins a new contract with MidAmerican. If prices remain high, the University will face these increased costs. This could create an opportunity for Drake to explore alternatives to natural gas in order to cut costs and reduce their carbon footprint.
“I think it’s a good challenge that a lot of businesses and universities are facing,” said Sophia Siegel, Drake’s sustainability coordinator. “What is the next move? How do we fit that into our next 20-year plan? It’s hard to know since technology really hasn’t caught up yet, but we’re not going to go back to burning wood.”
Recent natural disasters such as the snowstorm over Texas earlier this year have brought to light how vulnerable natural gas systems are, and according to Siegel, this created an urgency around converting to new sources. However, Moran doesn’t expect change to happen soon.
“It’s not going to be an overnight solution, but renewable energy is definitely going to be on the forefront of everybody’s thinking,” Moran said.
The Harkin Institute, built in 2019, is a landmark example of how buildings on Drake’s campus might be powered in twenty years. Moran explained how the building has no natural gas line and is instead powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels and solar energy — another step towards a carbon-neutral campus.
Drake has years to explore alternatives to natural gas, but neighborhood residents are facing this problem now. Those concerned about the increased heating costs this winter can call IMPACT at 515-518-4770 to learn if they qualify for aid and what they qualify for.