RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Electric customers throughout our area are seeing much higher utility bills than they expected — and for many, it’s a big surprise catching them unaware. 

When it got cold last month, a lot of us cranked up the thermostat and even if we didn’t, our heating systems ran a whole lot longer during the holiday cold snap. 

However, that’s not the whole story behind the rise in December’s electric bills. 

Let’s start at the source. 

Utility companies are paying a lot more for fuel to run their power generators which increases our bills. How much more have they gone up?   

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says the average customer nationwide is paying 3 and a half percent more for their electricity than they did last year.

On the local Nextdoor page for Raleigh, CBS 17 observed posts from more than a hundred people complaining about electric bills that have doubled this month.

Blame some of that on the holiday cold snap. 

“This December is kind of unusual,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Logan Kureczka. “We usually see the highest usage days in the winter during January and February.” 

Then there’s those seasonal lights, another factor that pushes up electric consumption.

A single strand or two in your yard won’t add a ton to your bill,” said Kureczka. “But if you have the best house in the neighborhood — with a ton of inflatables, you’ll see an increase.” 

With electric prices on the march upward, how can you control the expenses? 

Utilities like Duke offer a balanced budget program

“It enables customers to pay a set amount on their bill each month based on your past 12 months usage,” said Kureczka. “You can set it up annually or quarterly.” 

That way you’ll always know what your monthly bill will be.

Now is a good time to start, because we’re at the beginning of a new year. 

If you have a smart meter, there are several things that can help let you know the cost of your power consumption.

Mid-cycle alerts will show your projected bill for the next month so you won’t be hit with unexpected costs. 

“The best way to avoid billing surprises is to track your usage,” said Kureczka. 

There’s also a budget alert that lets you know when you are approaching a pre-set spending limit of any amount you desire.

Remember though, if you set a limit of something like $150, it doesn’t mean your bill will be $150 — that’s just an arbitrary limit you set 

“You’ll get a notice when you are approaching it [your limit] so you can modify your energy usage accordingly,” said Kureczka. 

Duke will also do a free energy audit of your home to figure out where there might be waste.

If you need financial assistance, the utility works with various state and community groups and has some information about that here.