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Power bills skyrocket

REASON: Natural gas, polar vortex blamed for rate hike.

By: LOHR McKINSTRY

ELIZABETHTOWN — The controversy over a big increase in National Grid bills this month sparked outrage Tuesday from some Essex County lawmakers.

Electricity prices jumped 50 percent or higher last month statewide, the hike blamed on cold weather and increased demand for natural gas.

Many National Grid customers got their bills at the end of last week, fueling protests to their elected officials.

MOBBED BY RESIDENTS

Supervisor Daniel Connell (D-Westport) said he was leaving the Westport Town Hall after a meeting Monday night when citizens began asking about National Grid bills.

“When the meeting was over, I couldn’t get out the door,” he said at Tuesday’s Essex County Board of Supervisors meeting. “People were all around me, telling me there was a mistake, their power bills doubled.

“I said it was no mistake; the price has gone up. This is an increase people can’t afford.”

The Town of Westport gets bills for 12 electric accounts, and some of them didn’t just double, they quadrupled, he said.

‘DEVASTATING’

Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) said his constituents had been calling him about their power bills since last week.

“It’s devastating to many people, especially senior citizens. There’s got to be some more control. You can’t just have these increases out of nowhere.”

Scozzafava called for the State Public Service Commission to investigate the increases and said he’d be calling State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury).

“This is just crazy,” he said.

Scozzafava said he called National Grid and was told the utility has no control over the price of power.

“It’s a commodity issue. It’s where they buy the power. There’s a lot of people angry.”

NONPROFIT IN CHARGE

Utility companies buy the power from the New York Independent System Operator, the North Greenbush not-for-profit entity that supervises the state’s electrical market.

Contacted by the Press-Republican, National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said the company sold its plants years ago and now gets its power from the Independent System Operator, which operates a network in which power-plant owners continuously bid the prices they want for their power.

“The supply side has gone up since November (2013), anywhere from 45 to 55 percent,” Stella said.

“That’s market price, driven by many different things, if there’s been higher usage. Natural-gas costs have gone up. When natural-gas prices go up, rates go up. If there’s more usage, you will see an increase.”

BIG FREEZE HURT

During the polar-vortex-generated cold spell, New York state set a record for electricity usage, as demand went to 25,738 megawatts on Jan. 7. The previous winter-demand record of 25,541 megawatts was set Dec. 20, 2004.

Stella said electricity delivery rates had dropped about 10 percent since March 2013, when National Grid got permission from the Public Service Commission for the decrease. Those rates had decreased another 10 percent in January 2012.

“Although National Grid does not control the supply side of the bill, the portion of the bill National Grid does control, the delivery portion, has decreased nearly 20 percent in the past two years as a result of the company’s efforts to stabilize energy costs for its customers,” Stella said.

The delivery rates are what National Grid charges to own and maintain the infrastructure that delivers the power to the customer’s home or business.

NATURAL GAS PRICE

Some power plants burn natural gas to generate electricity, and those costs went up, New York Independent System Operator spokesman David Flanagan told the Press-Republican.

“The main driver here is the price of natural gas. The price of natural gas and the price of electricity track each other. When you get into the winter months, you have competing demands for that gas, and the price will go up. There are are higher demands from utilities and customers.”

TOUGH ON SENIORS

The increased power prices are affecting all electric utilities in the state, including National Grid, New York State Electric & Gas and others.

Moriah resident Catherine Sprague said National Grid is getting the attention right now because its bills just went out.

“Some National Grid customers’ bills have doubled and tripled,” she said. “Older people can’t afford increases like that. Senior citizens are on a fixed budget.”

Email Lohr McKinstry lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com.

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HELP WITH COSTS

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said customers who are having trouble paying their utility bill should call National Grid at (800) 642-4272 as soon as they believe they are having trouble.

National Grid has consumer advocates that can help customers through a variety of company, state and federal programs, he said. "The earlier a customer contacts us, the easier it is for us to assist."

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