Lawmakers press DPU to rescind utility rate increases

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-26-2023 5:03 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Area legislators are joining with more than 90 of their colleagues across the state in appealing to the Department of Public Utilities to reconsider its decision that allowed utility companies to increase customer rates for the winter based on surging oil and natural gas prices.

“We are requesting that the DPU take immediate action to reassess the recently granted rate increases,” reads the letter sent to DPU Chair Matthew Nelson. “With cheaper oil, utility companies have been able to generate extreme profit for themselves at the expense of Massachusetts residents. It is the DPU’s duty to protect our citizens from unfair and deeply damaging prices.”

State Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, is among those who signed the letter. She said her office has received numerous calls from constituents who are “devastated” by rising energy costs.

“This is corporate greed at the expense of the ratepayers at a difficult economic time,” she said. “People are angry, genuinely angry and frustrated.”

Whipps has been directing constituents to two websites that can help them find a lower rate. The first is energyswitchma.gov, developed by the DPU to assist consumers in shopping for electric supply products. The second site, colonialpowergroup.com/orange, is an independent energy consulting company that specializes in helping municipalities create and manage electric Community Choice Power Supply Programs. Its mission, according to the site, is to provide services that will stabilize a community’s utility costs while protecting it from the risks inherent in the volatile energy markets.

Whipps said the 2nd Franklin District that she represents is more economically disadvantaged than some, and to have energy bills doubling or tripling has been very hard to cope with. She added that municipal buildings and business owners have also been struggling with the rise in energy costs. She suggested the DPU take a closer look at the profits being made by utility companies when setting these rates.

“At the end of the day, everybody’s feeling it,” Whipps said.

Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, said the matter is urgent, especially as winter and cold weather continues.

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“This entire winter I have heard from constituents across my district about the high utility bills they’re receiving each month and the impact that these rates are having on their finances. Any opportunity we have to lower these rates and help folks out, we absolutely need to take a look at,” Velis said.

DPU’s decision, Velis said, was based on the price of oil at $140 per barrel in the summer. Oil was trading at $75 per barrel by the end of the day on Jan. 4.

“Clearly, the oil market is in a different place now than it was this summer and I think that DPU absolutely should be reconsidering these rates in response,” he said. “We are only halfway through the winter, and anything we can do now will make a huge difference.”

Several months ago, a similar letter was sent expressing concerns about the proposed energy rate increases sought by multiple investor-owned utility companies, including National Grid, Unitil and Eversource. At that time, utility companies cited several reasons for the need to have higher rates, including the price of oil, natural gas, Russia’s war with Ukraine and inflation.

The DPU approved a rate increase for National Grid’s winter period, Nov. 1 through April 30, under which the cost of basic service would increase by approximately 64%. Eversource received approval for a 43% increase beginning Jan. 1.

Like her colleague in the Senate, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said she has also been approached regularly by those she represents in the 1st Hampshire District.

“The biggest feelings I’m hearing from constituents about energy costs this winter is anger and frustration,” Sabadosa said. “Very few people have room in their budget to spend hundreds more each month on energy and, if prices are going down, it is appropriate to pass savings on to consumers. Given the pain people are feeling, the DPU should reassess the approved hikes.”

Sabadosa notes that she signed the earlier letter to the DPU drafted by Sen. Paul Mark, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams, and worked with them to file HD.3253, titled “An Act Relative to Fair and Stable Utility Pricing.”

That bill would require a special review of any rates proposed that exceed the rate of inflation, and requires utilities to deduct advertising and charitable deductions from their cost of doing business before proposing rates.

“One of the frustrating things we encountered this year was that the utilities announced a donation to the local food bank as a way to help consumers during the difficult months of higher utility rates,” Sabadosa said. “While we all appreciate support of the food banks, that money is better served in consumers’ pockets rather than as a charitable deduction for the company.”

Velis spokesperson Gabe Adams-Keane said the senator has been among those doing what he can as a legislator, including adding $57 million to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, LIHEAP, this year, in addition to $159 million that comes from the federal government. Velis, he said, has also fought for tax relief to lower bills.

“As it gets colder, we are putting them in touch with LIHEAP, Eversource payment plans and reminding them of the state’s moratorium from getting their heat shut down,” Adams-Keane said. “We do the best we can to connect them.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com. Max Bowen contributed to this report.

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