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Winter has been tough on Oklahoma… A Christmas Eve blizzard, a late-January ice storm and warnings that February is going to be active with winter "precip." There's a good chance that instead of wrestling your arms into thicker sweaters, you're inching the needle upon the thermostat and waiting anxiously to see exactly what your gas bill is going to read once it's all over.

With natural gas prices at an all-time low right now, our bills, too, have been relatively low. But, when the weather fluctuates back and forth between warm weeks and ice-cold weeks, as Oklahoma's sometimes does in the winter, it can be difficult for utility companies to know exactly how to place their fuel order.

One Wisconsin researcher believes he has the answer. Ron Brown has created GasDay, a business and education venture at Marquette University. Students help various utilities in 21 different states forecast how much natural gas homeowners will consume on any given day, at any given time.

I read about GasDay in a story in the Journal Sentinel on line. The students have created mathematical models based on historical weather and usage data. They parallel that data with the current forecast to help the utilities decide if consumers are going to crank up the heat or if they're more likely to tough it out, say if the cold snap only last a day or two.

The local utility that provides power in Springfield, Mo. uses GasDay and found out in January, it really does work. Here's what utility spokesman Ron McMannus said in the Sentinel:

"It was very, very close to what the actual gas level turned out to be. If GasDay does a good job for us, we can reap a little bit of financial reward. We're a municipal utility, so that just gets passed on to our customers."

Another company, We Energies, believes GasDay has saved $1 million per year in fees paid to pipeline operators:

"It saves us when we have the very, very cold weather. Obviously the pipelines only have a certain amount of capacity that they can move the gas across, so we need to be as accurate as we can in projecting out our demand. The pipelines, to protect themselves, have some very significant cost penalties if we would take more gas than we're entitled to," said Jim Voss, manager of gas purchasing at We Energies.

Managers of utilities say better forecasting is vital because customers don't instantly turn up the heat on the first cold day. First, they put on a sweater. If on day two, it's still cold, then it's time to reach for the thermostat.

To read more about Ron Brown's fascinating forecasting, click here.

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