Allow me to provide a first-hand account from the beautiful Northeast: this winter was brutal. Endless snow, bouts of extreme cold and a polar vortex have made this mother-of-all-winters colder than most winters across the last twenty years.

Chicago had its third snowiest winter on record, Detroit had its second snowiest and others broke wintery-white records from Toledo to Philadelphia to Atlanta.

As such, utility costs are front and center. Along with the snow, many are digging out from winter utility bills that doubled—even tripled—such as consumers in Pennsylvania where electricity has been deregulated. The unfortunate chose or were defaulted to variable plans that fluctuated with wholesale electric prices. These prices spiked hard in the extreme cold, increasing electricity and gas used by power generators. Some of the plans hit 38-cents a kilowatt (compared to the average 8-cents) spurring over 750 complaints to the Public Utility Commission.

It’s not that better choices weren’t available to these residents. In fact, it’s probably certain that an extremely high utility bill was merely an unintended consequence of an uninformed choice.

In the old coal mining days, canaries were used as an early warning system to alert miners of toxic air in time for everyone to safely vacate the mine. It was a fast and simple way to know of impending danger.

We might find a scant few canaries yet singing in today’s multifamily utility billing market.

Even on the West Coast where, in stark contrast, winters were the warmest on record in San Francisco and Las Vegas, the talk is about utility costs. Seattle utility companies are considering a 30 percent rate increase over the next 6 years.

It could have been worse.

The shale-based energy revolution that I first wrote about a couple issues ago, is not only helping us through the winter, it is building our economy and fortifying our leverage around the world. It is why this winter’s energy bills weren’t as bad as they could have been, but we can still do better.

Knowledge delivers informed choices.  The business of multifamily is only growing in complexity as mounting regulations, shifting legislation and evolving energy markets coalesce as the primal soup of tomorrow’s new utility environment.

What if it is as simple as discerning who’s ahead of the pack and watching those canaries for clues?

Michael Radice

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