BOSTON – Consumers will dig deeper into their pockets to heat their homes and keep the lights turned on this winter, with electricity and natural gas rates set to increase.
Beginning this month, National Grid's residential electric rates increased by 15.2%, or about $21 a month on average, compared to rates last winter.
National Grid's gas customers, meanwhile, could get a break on their bills. Customers of Boston Gas Company, the company's subsidiary in the region, will see their monthly bill reduced by about $14, or 7%, this winter compared to last year, depending on how much gas they use and whether it’s for heat, hot water or other uses, according to the utility.
National Grid provides electric service to about 1.2 million customers and gas to about 830,000 in Massachusetts, including tens of thousands North of Boston.
In a statement, the company said customers have options to lower their electric bills by reducing energy consumption and considering payment options.
"New England winters can be unpredictable, and now is a good time to plan ahead," said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid for Massachusetts. "We urge our customers to use energy wisely, take advantage of our nation-leading energy efficiency programs, and learn about our many billing options and discount programs."
Eversource, which serves about 1.4 million customers in the state, will be filing its proposed winter rates to state regulators on Dec. 1, according to the company.
It's not clear whether or not the utility will request an increase, but any changes to its winter rates would go into effect on Jan. 1, if approved by state regulators.
The utility's natural gas rates, which went into effect on Nov. 1, increased the average monthly bill by about $22 per month, or 14%, compared to last winter.
Eversource spokesman Reid Lamberty attributed the higher gas bills to a lack of pipeline capacity and transportation costs.
"Although natural gas remains an abundant and inexpensive fuel, our regional pipeline limitations and dependency on gas to produce electricity continue to affect electricity prices," he said. "Here in the Northeast, we're at the end of the pipeline whether its natural gas or oil, so the transportation costs to get that fuel here drives prices up."
Lamberty said there are low- and no-cost energy efficiency programs to help reduce bills, and customers have the option to buy power through a third-party retailer.
Customers of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts will also see their bills decrease this winter, but it isn't yet clear by how much. The company, a subsidiary of NiSource, has a proposal pending approval by state regulators.
Last year, the company withdrew a state-approved $33 million rate hike that was supposed to go into effect to pay for infrastructure upgrades. The utility backed away from the increase in response to the gas fires and explosions that ripped through the Merrimack Valley. So far it has not refiled the request.
Utility officials point out that winter rates are pass-through charges that only cover the cost of power, which they don't control and are not allowed to profit from under state law.
Energy bills reflect a combination of supply prices, which are based largely on market conditions, and delivery prices, which are set by state and federal regulators.
Consumer advocates say they are concerned about the impact of rate increases on low-income residential customers.
"Energy costs in Massachusetts are already among the highest in the nation, and heat and electricity are necessities of life," said John Howat, a senior energy analyst at the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center. "Higher gas and electric prices have a particular impact on low-income households that have trouble making ends meet anyways."
He said electric distribution rates have been on the rise nationally and in New England in recent years, adding to the financial burden on low-income families.
"We really need to find better ways to ensure that those increases don't make worse what is already a disproportionate energy burden carried by low-income households," Howat said.
Last year, utility customers got a break on their bills because of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which lowered the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.
Following passage of the tax reform, Attorney General Maura Healey asked the state Department of Public Utilities to recalculate rates for utilities operating in Massachusetts. Regulators in the state factor in federal taxes when calculating "reasonable and just" rates that utilities may set for their customers.
Healey faced resistance from several companies, which her office accused of "playing Monopoly with money that didn’t belong to them."
Regulators eventually ordered National Grid, Eversource and more than a dozen other electric, gas and water companies to pass $116 million in tax savings back to their customers.
Healey's office also intervened in National Grid's recent request to increase electric rates, convincing regulators to reduce the increase by more than $43 million.
Deirdre Cummings, a legislative affairs director at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said the state needs to adopt more policies and programs that promote energy efficiency to protect consumers' pocketbooks.
"Just like we expect snow to fall in the winter, we also expect to pay more for our energy this time of year," she said. "But when those rate increases exceed typical rates of inflation is when consumers have cause for concern. All too often utilities use our bad weather as an excuse to excessively increase rates."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com