As the cold winds of a stormy economy blow across the Bay Area, there may be one consolation for residents: the area's major utility says heating bills will likely drop this winter.

Pacific Gas & Electric residential customers will probably pay about $7 less for natural gas heat for the period of October through February, compared with the same time period in 2008, said PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith.

On the national level, those who heat their homes with natural gas can expect to pay some $105 less this winter, the Energy Information Administration said in its annual winter outlook Tuesday. An ample supply of natural gas has brought prices down and the winter is expected to be milder, cutting average heating costs across the country.

Smith pointed out that costs vary from one household to another. Also, if there were to be a natural disaster or an unexpectedly cold winter, demand would go up and hence prices would rise.

But prospects look good right now for lower PG&E residential bills this winter. "To a certain extent, we can buy natural gas at a lower price during the summer and store it, so that does affect the prices during the winter months." Smith said. "Right now, PG&E's stores are full." The utility charges customers what it pays for gas plus transportation costs.

About half of all households across the country depend on natural gas for heating. Those households are expected to pay an average of $783 this year, nearly 12 percent less than last winter. Those that use heating oil will pay $1,821, a dip of about 2 percent, the Energy Information Administration predicted, while those who heat via electricity will pay $933, a decline of 2 percent.

In a time of layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, keeping costs down is especially important. Making a home more energy-efficient can reduce heating bills by 32 percent and cut overall energy bills by about $350 per year at current prices, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

PG&E can help households perform their own energy audits. Visit www.pge.com for more information. To check for California programs offering rebates for such improvements, visit www.dsireusa.org.

In January and February, customers can earn credits for reducing natural gas use to below the three-year average for their home or business, under PG&E's 10/20 Program.

For every 1 percent decrease, customers get 1 percent credit to as much as 9 percent. Those who cut back by 10 percent or more receive a 20 percent credit.

Also, PG&E has a CARE program for customers with low incomes. The program provides a 20 percent discount on monthly bills. To contact PG&E to discuss these options, call 800-743-5000.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jmara.