Western Massachusetts Electric eyes 29 percent rate hike

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PITTSFIELD >> Citing a steep jump in the price of electricity that it purchases for its customers, the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. on Friday filed for an increase in its basic supply rate, which could raise the average residential customer's bill by 29 percent this winter.

The proposed rate change, which would take effect Jan. 1 and last for six months, would raise the average residential customer's monthly bill by about $26, according to WMECo.

The increase has to be approved by the state Department of Public Utilities before it can go into effect. WMECo filed its request with the DPU.

"It's in front of them now," said WMECo spokeswoman Priscilla Ress, adding the utility expects the DPU to make a decision soon.

"I think these things go very quickly," she said, "but I don't have a time frame on it."

WMECo serves 15 of Berkshire County's 32 communities, including the city of Pittsfield.

The rate increase would raise the supply charge for all customers on the utility's Basic Service supply option to 14.015 cents per kilowatt hour, according to WMECo. Customers who use an average of 500 kilowatt hours per month would see their bill jump from $90.40 to $116.26 after Jan. 1.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said she had yet to see WMECo's figures, which the utility released mid-afternoon.

Speaking in general terms. Farley-Bouvier said she had been anxious to see the numbers because she expected them to be high based on what other utility companies have requested. National Grid, the other utility that services the Berkshires, filed a request for a 37 percent increase with the DPU in September.

"I think it's important that these numbers are closely looked at because it has such a high impact on families," she said. "And, we need to understand the true reason for these increases.

"There are a lot of rumors out there that there are nefarious reasons for these numbers to be so high to scare people into the [natural gas] pipeline issue," Farley-Bouvier said. "I think we need real numbers to make sure that people can pay their bills."

As a regulated delivery company in Massachusetts, WMECo purchases electricity from suppliers and passes that cost along, with no profit added, directly to customers who are on the utility's Basic Service supply option. By law, the basic service price for residential and small commercial customers changes twice a year, on Jan. 1 and on June 1.

John Lutz, the executive director of Elder Services in Pittsfield, said an increase like the one that WMECo has proposed would hamper his organization's clients.

"As you can imagine the vast majority of the clients we serve on our on fixed incomes," Lutz said. "A 29 percent increase in their energy bill. ... It will be back to the days of going with heat or eat."

Lutz also said he found it unconscionable that WMECo would announce its request for an increase in its basic supply rate on the first day it snows.

Ress said rate increases are timed to give the DPU time to consider each utility company's proposal. National Grid's proposed rate increase, which went into effect on Nov. 1 came earlier because it is on a different schedule than WMECo.

Ress characterized the proposed rate increase as "significant" but said WMECo had been notifying its customers about the utility's energy efficiency programs to prepare them for what was coming.

"We're always mindful of the effect these supplier increases have on our customers, particularly those who are facing difficult financial circumstances," said Penni Conner, senior vice president and chief customer officer at Northeast Utilities, WMECo's parent company. "We're urging all WMECo customers to take advantage of our energy efficiency programs to help reduce their usage, tighten up their homes, and keep energy bills down this winter."

According to WMECo, more than half of New England's electricity is now generated by natural gas-fired plants. Natural gas is abundant and inexpensive, but regional pipeline limitations and the growing dependency on gas to produce electricity are pushing prices higher, the utility stated.

Contact Tony Dobrowolski at (413) 496-6224.


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