After 30 years of operating the Island’s largest oil and gas supplier, Ralph Packer is quite aware that many Islanders feel they pay way too much to heat their homes in the winter.
“I start to hear it every year when it gets cold; people think they’re getting ripped off,” Mr. Packer said. “They are automatically suspicious when their [oil bills] go up each year.”
Mr. Packer, who has owned and operated the R.M. Packer Co. headquartered in Vineyard Haven for 29 years, is quick to point out that an increase in his customers’ monthly heating bills does not necessarily boost his company’s bottom line. Even if the price of oil goes up, the percentage his company earns stays the same, he said.
But even Mr. Packer admits that all indications are that heating costs on the Vineyard will continue to climb; and that is not good for anyone.
“Even we don’t like to see the cost of [crude oil] go up because a lot of time we wind up losing money . . . I don’t think people understand that,” he said.
Mr. Packer explained that the cost of heating oil here and elsewhere is based on the cost of crude oil, a commodity with wide price swings in times of shortage or oversupply. The cost of oil can change due to a variety of factors, including turmoil in the Middle East. Because it is an inherently volatile commodity, it is particularly attractive to traders, who profit by betting on the daily and even hourly fluctuations in price — and those bets themselves wind up affecting the price.
The ever-increasing costs of heating oil is especially a problem in New England where one of every two homes burns heating oil, compared with just one in 20 in the rest of the country, where most homes use natural gas.
Last month, the Energy Department estimated that heating oil costs will jump about 26 percent this winter across the country, which equals an average increase of $375 per customer. But those estimates use a price of just over $3 a gallon — up from the national average of $2.48 a gallon last winter — which is far below the cost of oil here on the Vineyard.
As of yesterday, R.M. Packer was charging $3.63 a gallon for heating oil, excluding discounts for some customers, meaning that Vineyard homeowners with oil burners pay some of the highest heating costs in the state, if not the nation. And everyone from Mr. Packer to local business owners agree there is no relief in sight.
“It goes up and up and up,” said Kerry Scott, owner of Good Dog Goods in Oak Bluffs, of her store’s ever-increasing heating bills. “The businesses who choose to stay open year-round as a service to the community are getting hit hard by heating costs.”
Roger Wey, director of the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, said rising heating costs are more of a problem this year then ever. He said the council, which provides heating oil assistance to some seniors on a fixed income, has received a larger number of requests for help this year then usual.
“It’s a devastating issue to a lot of people . . . they simply can’t afford to heat their homes in the winter. I hear stories about people who block off part of their house or wear extra sweaters just to keep their bills down, and you can tell it really affects their quality of life. And this problem is not getting any better; if anything it gets worse each year,” Mr. Wey said.
State Rep. Eric T. Turkington said high heating costs are one of the bigger problems facing Cape Cod and the Islands.
Mr. Turkington encouraged Islanders — especially those with oil heat — to explore ways to make their homes more energy and heat-efficient.
“There are a lot of homes on the Vineyard that weren’t built for the winter . . . some up until recently were used only in the summer. If people took the time to explore how they can make their homes more energy efficient, I think they will see it pay off quickly,” he said.
Mr. Turkington suggested that home-owners take advantage of several programs available through the Cape Light Compact, the regional energy services organization made up of the 21 towns on Cape Cod and the Vineyard. The goal of the Compact is to represent and protect consumer interests in a restructured utility industry and to use the combined buying power of the region’s 200,000 electric consumers to negotiate lower costs for electricity and other public benefits.
The Compact offers several energy-efficiency programs, including a free Home Energy Audit which often leads to simple solutions like more efficient light bulbs and weather stripping.
Rob Meyers, a designer for the South Mountain Company, a West Tisbury building company specializing in renewable energy technologies, said more clients have inquired about energy efficiency and renewable energy in recent years. Even Mr. Packer, owner of the larger provider of oil and gasoline on the Island, agrees the Island should embrace energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. He said his company routinely installs cutting-edge energy efficient oil burners, and has already embraced renewable energy technologies in the form of bio-fuel pumps at the Island Shell in Vineyard Haven that dispense a more eco-friendly fuel to motorists.
“This is the way of the world now,” Mr. Packer said. “It’s no longer a question of whether we should embrace [these alternative energy sources], but how quickly.”