Spare the Electric Space Heater (and Turn Up the Gas) to Save Money and Keep Warm this Winter

This article was written by me and originally appeared in the Monticello Times:

Winter has come, and that means college students will be looking for ways to keep warm without breaking the bank. A common way students seek to do this is by using electric space heaters, but in general, using space heaters is more expensive than turning up the thermostat on your natural-gas powered furnace.

Space heaters can be more affordable than gas if they are only being used in one or two small rooms while the rest of the house is cool, but beyond that they are much more expensive to use than your gas-powered furnace.

Most electric space heaters use 1.5 kilowatts of electricity every hour, which is 1.5 kilowatt hours (kWh). Understanding the units used to measure electricity can be confusing, so just think of a kWh as a volumetric measurement, like a gallon of gasoline or a barrel of oil.

Electricity prices in Minneapolis are about 16.12 cents per kWh after taxes and fees, according to my Xcel Energy bill. This means running one space heater at full capacity would cost about 24 cents per hour. According to this online calculator, running the space heater for five hours per day for a month would cost about  $37. This adds up very quickly if your house is running two or three space heaters, or running them longer than five hours per day.

In contrast, natural gas provides extra heat a much lower cost. In Minneapolis, the cost of natural gas is 7.6 times lower than the cost of electricity, on a per unit of energy basis, according to my CenterPoint Energy bill. This means you could potentially keep your whole house warmer while still spending less than the cost of running additional space heaters.

Space heaters will also become more expensive in the future, compared to natural gas, because Xcel Energy continues to increase electricity prices for residential consumers.

Xcel Energy customers already pay about 10 percent more for their electricity than the national average, but households served by Xcel will pay 29 percent more than the national average after the company is finished incrementally raising its prices by 17.75 percent through 2022. This price increase will cost the average household in Minnesota an extra $164 to $200 per year, and it will also cause the cost of running a space heater to reach $41.75 per month, if it operates for five hours per day.

Unfortunately, Minnesota law does not allow you to change your electricity provider, meaning you’re basically forced to have Xcel Energy no matter how much their electricity costs. This means the best way you can keep your expenses low without freezing this winter is to spare the space heater and turn up the thermostat on your natural gas furnace.

Isaac Orr is a policy fellow specializing in energy and environmental policy at Center of the American Experiment.