No big hike for winter utility bills a year after rates skyrocketed

Workers install steel shoring where submarine cables come onshore for the Vineyard Wind project in Barnstable in October 2022. According to Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper, the state is making strides to wean itself from its reliance on natural gas to avoid potential price spikes in the future. She said the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project will start delivering power in the coming year at affordable rates.

Workers install steel shoring where submarine cables come onshore for the Vineyard Wind project in Barnstable in October 2022. According to Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper, the state is making strides to wean itself from its reliance on natural gas to avoid potential price spikes in the future. She said the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project will start delivering power in the coming year at affordable rates. BLOOMBERG FILE PHOTO

Utility meters on a Greenfield home.

Utility meters on a Greenfield home. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 12-26-2023 2:04 PM

Utility customers can expect to see lower prices than they paid last winter for the six-month period beginning Feb. 1, which could ease some of the pain felt last year when rates skyrocketed.

At a hearing before Senate members of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy in Pittsfield earlier this month, executives with National Grid, Eversource and Berkshire Gas told lawmakers that their winter rates will be anywhere from 14% to 28% lower than last year.

“The rates we filed over the past couple of weeks for western Mass. are 15.8 cents per kilowatt hour,” said Parker Littlehale, Eversource’s manager of electric supply. “A year ago it was 22 cents — a 28% decrease.”

He noted that the war in Ukraine had a big impact, driving up global prices for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which he said utilities in the Northeast have to import, especially in winter, because the region doesn’t have enough natural gas infrastructure.

This year, though, natural gas prices are lower. Natural gas is the dominant source of electric power in the Northeast, Littlehale said, accounting for approximately 45% of megawatt hours in 2022.

“Power prices rise as natural gas prices rise,” he said.

National Grid customers are looking at a rate of 18.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, a decline of 27% compared to last year, according to Pam Viapiano, vice president of New England regulation.

And Berkshire Gas President and CEO Sue Kristjansson said lower commodity prices mean customers’ monthly bills will be 14% lower than last winter.

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Previewing the hearing in Pittsfield, committee member Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, observed that utility costs have risen sharply in recent years, with electricity rates up by an average of 12% and natural gas prices spiking by 15% just in the last two years.

In November 2022, Eversource sought a 43% increase in its electricity rates, which went into effect in January 2023, and the company’s natural gas rates rose by 38% in November, according to information from Mark’s office.

Mark requested that the utilities committee hold a hearing in western Massachusetts so that residents could hear directly from state and utility officials.

Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper told the panel that the state is making strides to wean itself from its reliance on natural gas to avoid potential price spikes in the future. She said the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project will start delivering power in the coming year under a long-term contract at affordable rates.

Massachusetts is soliciting up to 3,600 megawatts of wind power, which Tepper said is more than 25% of the state’s demand.

Elizabeth Mahony, commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, noted that the state also has a contract for 1100 megawatts of power from a hydro transmission line being built through Maine.

The cost of that project has ballooned as it has been slowed by delays and litigation. The developers and Massachusetts utilities are trying to sort out how the cost increases will be shared.

Lawmakers expressed several concerns to government officials. Rep. John Barrett III of the 1st Berkshire District said the town of Windsor had waited 19 months to get its plan approved for an electricity aggregation program, which he termed unacceptable.

“There’s no way in heck on God’s green Earth that it is going to take 19 months for an aggregation approval for a community of less than 2,000 people,” Barrett said.

He also ripped the Department of Public Utilities for having an “uppity attitude” and said reimbursements under MassSave, a residential energy conservation program funded by ratepayers, are not going out in good time.

“People can’t get a rebate, and they can’t get an answer,” Barrett said.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, echoed Barrett’s concerns, and said the MassSave application form is cumbersome and confusing.

“We gotta get the money out the door,” he said.

Committee Chair Sen. Michael Barrett of the 3rd Middlesex District noted that plans to modernize the power grid will be expensive.

“We can’t expect people to pay to sustain a natural gas grid while we’re increasing their electric bills,” he said. “I’m concerned about widespread rejection of the climate project for that reason.”

Sen. Barrett also questioned the utility chiefs on their rate structure, saying he saw no reason why basic service rates — paid by customers who aren’t on a municipal aggregation program — should be higher.

“The individual consumer gets a bad deal,” he said. “Basic service is still key for many.”

Pignatelli asked if electric deregulation — allowing customers to choose their energy supplier — had worked since it was introduced in Massachusetts 25 years ago.

“I don’t believe the ideal of more competition has panned out,” he said.

Viapiano agreed that changes have not come as anticipated.

“We didn’t think we’d have a single basic service customer by this time,” she said.