WALPOLE, N.H. — Most of the 7,282 electricity customers in Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Westmoreland and Walpole will see their bills almost double after the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission approved a 10 cent rate increase for Eversource and Liberty, the major suppliers of electricity to those four Connecticut River towns.
The PUC approved a six-month energy service rate of 22.566 cents per kilowatt hour for residential customers taking energy service from Eversource, a 112 percent increase from current rates, and 22.23 cents for Liberty, up from 11.11 cents.
“It’s going to be a very difficult winter,” said Peggy Pschirrer, a member of the Walpole Select Board. She said in addition to the rate hike, homeowners who rely on oil to heat their homes are looking at costs between $5.40 and $5.70 a gallon.
Customers will see the increases in bills arriving in August for Liberty and September for Eversource.
In the case of Eversource customers, a monthly bill of $145.11 will increase to $222.44, states the PUC order. Liberty’s increase will be similar.
Eversource bills, on top of an energy charge, also include a $13.81 customer service charge, distribution and transmission charges of a little more than 8 cents per kilowatt hour, and another approximate 1.2 cents per kWh in other costs.
William Hinkle, spokesman for Eversource, said the rate increase is due to spikes in the cost of natural gas.
MARKET FORCES PUSH PRICES UP
Hinkle said natural gas prices hinge on several factors, including the war in Ukraine, extreme weather last year in gas-producing regions in the United States, and domestic suppliers “aggressively pursuing” an increase in global demand.
Consumer advocate Don Kreis told NHPR that low prices for natural gas had “lulled the state and region into complacency over the last decade.”
“I can just hope that it will spur us to become more innovative and creative and interested in ways of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for one thing, and our reliance on energy generally for another,” Kreis told NHPR.
Eversource, which does not generate power, sold its power plants in 2018, the completion of electric deregulation in New Hampshire.
As a result, Eversource is responsible for acquiring power, securing six-month contracts for its customers, and transmitting it across the state via its powerlines.
“It’s one combined wholesale bid we receive that includes generation from multiple sources,” said Hinkle, who said he doesn’t expect there to be much change in natural gas costs when the next six-month contract goes out to bid.
In its most recent contract, NextEra Energy Marketing and Constellation Energy Generation were selected by Eversource to supply power to New Hampshire.
In information published on its website, Liberty Utilities also blamed the increase on market forces out of its control.
“The price we pay for the electricity that we deliver to our customers is passed through to our customers without any markup,” states the website. “Through a competitive bid process, we buy at the lowest price possible. We don’t profit on this part of your bill. The Energy Service charge on our bill represents the cost of electricity.”
ALL OF NEW ENGLAND, EXCEPT VERMONT, DEPENDENT ON NATURAL GAS
On average, about 60 percent of the electricity supplied to the New England states, with the exception of Vermont, is generated by natural gas.
Another 24 percent of production comes from nuclear, 9 percent from renewables, 2 percent from hydro power, and less than 1 percent from coal.
Real time information on the regional energy supply can be found by using ISO New England’s Iso to Go app, which can be found at www.iso-ne.com/about/news-media/iso-to-go.
Kristin Carlson, spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power, which supplies about 256,000 customers with power in Vermont, said Vermonters won’t see an increase in their rates because GMP doesn’t get any of its power from natural gas generators.
“In Vermont, there’s a whole different paradigm for how we serve customers,” said Carlson.
GMP’s power supply is 100 percent carbon free and 68 percent renewable, she said. The discrepancy between the two numbers is nuclear power, at 31 percent, which is considered carbon free, but not renewable. The majority of Vermont’s renewable energy comes from hydro power, with a large contract with Hydro Quebec and other smaller contracts with producers in and around Vermont.
And, unlike the other New England states, Vermont’s energy market is regulated.
Because Vermont’s utilities are regulated, said Carlson, they have the ability to offer long term power supply planning to protect the state’s customers.
“We have a long standing plan of offering stability and predictability for customers,” she said.
Green Mountain Power’s rate is 17 cents per kilowatt hour. And while that may seem a lot, that includes all transmission, distribution and miscellaneous costs.
According to the Vermont System Planning Committee, 17 electric distribution utilities serve serve the state, including Green Mountain Power, which is investor owned, two cooperatives, and 14 municipal electric utilities.
“Hedging helps offer stability versus what you’re seeing in the region,” she said. “They’re just completely exposed to whatever’s happening in the market.”
DEREGULATION CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Because New Hampshire deregulated its energy market, consumers are free to sign contracts with other providers, but still pay transmission and distribution fees to Eversource. Rates vary by the energy mix provided by those various providers.
“We encourage our customers to always evaluate competitive suppliers, whether it’s important to make sure that you’re purchasing 100 percent renewables or for finding a price that’s lower than ours for whatever reason,” said Hinkle. “We also remind them to remain vigilant against scams or deceptive marketing practices, especially in these times of financial stress and uncertainty.”
Some communities in New Hampshire, like Walpole, which gets its electricity from Liberty, hope to get a handle on electricity costs through a community power plan that allows consumers to aggregate their buying power to find the best rates.
While Walpole and other New Hampshire towns approved their plans during this year’s Town Meeting, they have not submitted them for approval to the PUC, which has not yet established rules to govern the process. Keene recently had its plan rejected by the PUC, not because there was something wrong with it, but because the PUC couldn’t approve it without rules.
The PUC hopes to propose its rules on July 5, but those rules also need approval from the state Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. A final draft could be ready by August, and the commission could start approving plans soon after that.
Steve Diorio, the chairman of the Hinsdale Select Board, said Hinsdale has not yet considered a community power plan, though the municipality itself aggregates its energy use and buys electricity as a whole.
He said the Select Board will be discussing the rate increase at its July 11 meeting.
He is also concerned how the rate increase will affect town residents, though he said his comments were personal and not as the chairman of the Select Board, which will decide on an official course of action during the meeting.
“I’ll be happy to tell them what we’re doing as a town with the LED lights and choosing other suppliers and also getting a rebate on some of our things,” said Diorio.
Pat Looney, the chairman of the Walpole Community Power Committee, said even if the PUC publishes its rules in July, it could take six to eight months before the town can go out and look for less expensive rates.
“It’s a long process, and I don’t now if the vendors are going to be able to get a much better rate than Liberty,” he said. “I certainly hope so.”
Even though folks in Walpole are going to get hit hard by the rate increase, he said they should be patient with the process.
“I still see this as a long road to get from where we are today to actually having a contract,” he said.
But Pschirrer herself is frustrated with the process.
“It’s a level of bureaucracy that I’m afraid I’m coming to expect in this state,” she said. “I think community power will be beneficial for all of us. But getting there is slower than we expected.”
Eversource offers several programs for people struggling to pay their electric bills.
For more information, visit www.eversource.com/content/nh/residential/account-billing/payment-assistance.
For more information on assistance offered by Liberty, visit new-hampshire.libertyutilities.com/concord/residential/my-account/my-bill/electric-financial-programs.html.