The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

January 8, 2014

Weathering the bitter cold

Agencies, businesses do their part

Herald staff

MERCER COUNTY AREA — Portable heaters are flying off the shelves as fast as they are coming in, while social service agencies are busy handing out blankets, hats and gloves and helping the homeless find a place to stay out of the frigid, record-breaking cold.

Salvation Army Capt. Scott Flanders said he received a number of calls, all from the Farrell area, from people who said they were living outside and needed help. As long as they could show identification, Flanders said he was able to put them up temporarily. “There were folks who were staying on somebody’s porch or someone who may have worn out their welcome wherever they were living,” he said.

Along with the weekly food distribution, Flanders said the Salvation Army on Fisher Hill in Sharon gave out 53 blankets and  more than 70 sets of hats and gloves and he still has some in stock.

Joshua’s Haven, a Sharon shelter for homeless men, still has two open beds, much to the surprise of Sherry Swetz, executive director. “We were braced for this. I know that the New Castle City Rescue Mission was overflowing, as was Mahoning County’s shelter. And we had to turn away four men last week, so I’m really shocked that we have room. But that tells me that they are finding somewhere to go,” she said.

The only requirement for the men seeking help at Joshua’s Haven, Swetz said, is that they must be drug and alcohol free. Random testing is done for both substances, she said.

Because of the extreme cold, Swetz said, Joshua’s Haven staffed the shelter around-the-clock Tuesday. “That means that the men who are there don’t have to leave at 8 a.m., like they normally would. They could spend the day in there,” she said. Along with overnight shelter, Joshua’s Haven provides a warm meal at 6 p.m. every day. “And we feed everyone, regardless of the drug or alcohol situation,” she said.

For those trying to keep their own homes warm, portable heaters were a hot item Tuesday at Warehouse Sales in Sharon. Manager Joe Altiere said the store was busier than he expected it would be, with customers grabbing the heaters as soon as they went on the shelf, along with heat tape to keep pipes from freezing and some replacement pipe for those who weren’t so lucky overnight. “I had a guy in here who works in a trailer park and he had about 10 that froze and burst,” he said.

“We got a shipment of heaters in this morning and they are just about gone,” he said. People were also looking for dry gas to get their cars started and windshield wiper fluid.

Though the area hospitals did not see an increase in patients during this week’s arctic blast, animal shelters and towing companies were receiving emergency calls nonstop.

Sharon Regional Health System’s spokesman Ed Newmeyer said the hospital did not see an increase in patients attributed to the cold weather.

“I think people were cautioned and warned to stay inside and I think that helped,” Newmeyer said. “People took precautions and the various cancellations and closings helped minimize any health-related issues to the cold weather.”

Sandi Drabick, executive director of Mercer County Humane Society, said humane agents had to answer nonstop complaint calls.

“We had calls about animals left outside, animals with no water and with no straw,” Drabick said. “The majority of the calls were dealing with dogs but we did rescue two mini-goats and received three calls concerning horses.”

Drabick said the humane society was still receiving calls and was not hesitating to issue citations.

“We are offering free straw for those who cannot afford it. If anyone needs straw or would like to report an animal being left outside, they can contact the humane society,” Drabick said. “Owners need to have adequate shelter and a water supply at all times for their animals left outside, otherwise they can receive a citation.”

Carpenters Towing in Sharon, a AAA provider, has remained busy since the frigid weather started Sunday evening.

“We have done a lot of towing and service calls,” said Mike Bortner, auto technician and shop manager. “We also had calls dealing with people being stuck in driveways, off-road and in ditches.”

Bortner said since Monday morning the towing company had received at least 60 calls.

“Today alone we have had 25 calls and they are still coming in,” Bortner said Tuesday afternoon.

Bone-chilling temperatures created record winter demand for electricity on a grid servicing a 13-state region, including Pennsylvania.

Electric demand soared so high that PJM Interconnection power grid authorities asked people to conserve energy.

This will undoubtedly translate into higher electric prices sold on the spot market – and not just in the Northeast, said Lee McCracken, CEO of Premier Power Solutions LLC, based in Grove City. The business brokers energy contracts between suppliers and businesses.

“It’s not so much the length of the cold blast, it’s the large geographic area we’re dealing with,’’ McCracken said.

He said for a few hours in Texas on Monday, the spot price for electricity surged to a whopping $5 a kilowatt-hour from a normal 3.6 cents a kilowatt-hour – close to a 1,400 percent hike.

“It doesn’t take many kilowatt hours to make it very expensive at that price,’’ he said.

Expected peak spot prices for electricity on the PJM grid had not yet been recorded Tuesday afternoon but McCracken predicted it would hit $1 a kilowatt-hour from around 4 cents a kilowatt-hour.

A spot price is what electricity sells for at any given moment during a trading day versus a contract price – a fixed rate for a certain period of time. A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy consumed in one hour. A computer desktop uses an average of 40 to 55 kilowatt hours in a month.

Electric customers not under a contract will likely see a bump in their electric bills next quarter to cover these higher costs, McCracken said.

“To see a peak demand for electricity in January isn’t unheard of, but it’s certainly rare,’’ he added.

Natural gas prices also surged, and demand reached an all-time high Tuesday. Prices for certain contracts, mainly gas delivered the same or next day saw a huge swing – with one contract fetching $99 per million British thermal units, compared to a normal price in the upper teens.

But most gas bought in America is done over longer term contracts which tend to have more stable and lower prices. Contract prices for natural gas delivered next month was little changed from last week.

National Fuel Gas Distribution Corp. had no major service issues on Tuesday, said Sandy James, an NFG spokeswoman. However, the utility closed its Buffalo, N.Y., headquarters due to severe cold and wind chill conditions there.

Despite soaring demand, gas supplies remain plentiful.

“We want customers to be assured, regardless of the cold weather, we are prepared to provide gas as needed,’’ James said.