The winter weather that blasted the Lowcountry in January has brought surging heating bills to mailboxes across Beaufort and Jasper counties.
Bills that went out last week to some Palmetto Electric Cooperative customers could be twice what they were this time last year, according to spokesman Jimmy Baker.
"I'm hesitant to use a percentage increase," Baker said. "But the average customer will see a significant increase in their bill. It won't be uncommon for customers to see bills that double."
SCE&G customers -- more than 50,000 in Beaufort and Jasper counties -- will also see higher rates compared with January 2013.
"It's been a colder start to the year than last year, so customers' bills will be higher, generally speaking," spokesman Eric Boomhower said.
The utilities blame the high usage on two cold bouts that chilled the Lowcountry with freezing temperatures last month.
To stay warm, Palmetto Electric customers cranked up the heat, Baker said.
The cooperative purchased 45 percent more electricity for customers last month than it did in January 2013, and 43 percent more than it did in December 2013.
It's hard to quantify how much the average customer's bill will increase, Baker said, because electricity use fluctuates based on how many people live in the home, how much insulation it has and the temperature to which the thermostat is set, among other things.
"Let's just say this will be a tough bill cycle for the average user," he said.
Boomhower said the heat pumps installed in most Lowcountry homes work great in typical above-freezing conditions. But they tend to lose efficiency when temperatures plummet, driving up costs.
"When you get to 28 degrees or lower, (heat pumps) are not designed to work efficiently in those temperatures," he said.
Boomhower said SCE&G is willing to work one-on-one with customers unable to pay a skyrocketing bill, perhaps by arranging a payment plan or making arrangements for direct aid from local agencies, such as The Deep Well Project on Hilton Head Island.
At Deep Well, operations manager Sherry Pritchard said she has yet to see any startling heating bills, but she is sure people will soon come seeking help.
"We're already expecting it," Pritchard said. "As soon as we saw the cold weather coming, we knew bills would get high."
She said the nonprofit set aside money last year during the relatively mild winter and should be able to shoulder the costs.
"We usually budget pretty well, though," she said, "so no one is going to be left out in the cold."
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.