Natural gas customers' bills are about 30 percent to 40 percent higher this winter than last, according to local utilities.
Prices are one driver, but the main culprit is the cold start to winter.
The November-January period was the coldest in four years in Omaha, according to National Weather Service data, and it was all the more painful because last winter was so mild.
The weather has been about 30 percent colder this year than last for the heating season that started in November, said Rhonda Chantry, vice president of rates, regulatory affairs and revenues at the Metropolitan Utilities District. She calculated that natural gas use among MUD customers is up a similar percentage, and gas bills are up by 34 percent.
The utility provides natural gas to Douglas County and portions of Sarpy, Saunders and Washington Counties.
Black Hills Energy, the Omaha metro area's other major natural gas provider, said its customers used 38 percent more gas in November-December 2013 than a year earlier.
This nearly 40 percent increase in gas use includes Council Bluffs, which is served by Black Hills.
The Black Hills and MUD figures aren't comparable because they cover different months.
Natural gas prices are higher for a couple of reasons, executives said. Utilities in general are paying high prices for gas because demand has been high nationally, said Kevin Jarosz, Black Hills senior operations manager for the Omaha and Lincoln areas.
Bitterly cold weather in the densely populated upper Midwest and Northeast pushed demand to a record level.
MidAmerican Energy Co., whose service territory extends into some of the harder-hit areas, saw the effects of that record use. MidAmerican provides services in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Abby Bottenfield, spokeswoman for the utility, said the utility set an all-time daily record on Jan. 6. MidAmerican Energy customers consumed 11 percent more gas on that date than the company's record, which was set on Jan. 15, 2009.
Natural gas has been consumed so quickly this winter that there is less in storage at this point — about 17 percent less — than the average of the previous five years, said Jim Knight, MUD's vice president of gas operations.
According to MUD, about three-fourths of the increase in residential bills this year is the result of greater use of gas. About 17 percent is attributable to the higher price that MUD pays for the gas, and 9 percent is the result of higher rates that MUD is charging for its portion of gas price.