PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As Rhode Islanders face double-digit energy price increases this fall and winter, an expert says the war in Ukraine is the single biggest cause.
Factoring in a nearly $33 million bill credit secured in the state’s settlement between R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office and R.I. Energy’s parent company, the cost of electricity for the average Rhode Island customer will increase from about $126 per month last winter to about $145 a month this winter, a more than 15% increase.
The electric rate increase took effect Oct. 1 and will last through April 1, 2023.
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Separately, the R.I. Public Utilities Commission (PUC) this month will consider R.I. Energy’s proposed heating rate hike, which would increase monthly gas bills for the average customer from about $126 per month to roughly $140 per month, a more than 10% increase from the previous year.
If approved, that increase would take effect Nov. 1 and continue for one year.
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Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the R.I. Hospitality Association, told Target 12 she’s receiving calls from concerned business owners and workers every day.
“I talk to people all day long,” she said. “They’re scared.”
Venturini said four local hotels saw their electric costs go up about 45 percent and heating costs increase by more than 30 percent from 2019 to 2022.
“It’s absolutely unsustainable,” she said.
Venturini said the association’s more than 900 member restaurants, hotels and other businesses are having difficult conversations right now, trying to strike a difficult balance.
“It gets to that tipping point of, ‘what is a customer willing to pay?'” she said.
And the hospitality industry is just one example of rising energy costs statewide.
Thomas Kogut, spokesperson for the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, said global prices for natural gas especially spiked after the war in Ukraine began in February.
“The rates that we’re seeing on the electric and gas side this year have gone up dramatically because of market volatility,” Kogut said.
State Rep. David Morales, D-Providence, has been vocal in criticizing the energy rate hikes, arguing the PUC has the authority to challenge R.I. Energy’s price increases.
“I’m shocked that there was not some form of mitigation or negotiation that was made with Rhode Island Energy, where the rate hikes wouldn’t be as high,” he said.
But Kogut says the PUC and R.I. Energy aren’t to blame.
“This is not an issue of company profit,” said Kogut, who went on to say the energy is “acquired at cost.”
Kogut said the way the law is written, R.I. Energy can’t make a profit off of the supply of electricity and heating–only off of the delivery to customers. And he said the company isn’t making any profit off of the delivery with the rate increases this year.
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio did not directly address a question from Target 12 about whether they would hold a special session this fall to address the rising energy prices.
“We remain committed to providing meaningful utility cost relief for Rhode Island’s overburdened families and businesses,” Shekarchi and Ruggerio said in a joint statement. “Governor McKee’s proposal to suspend the state’s 4 percent gross receipt tax will be reviewed by the General Assembly, and we will be exploring other additional legislative options to accomplish this goal.”
The General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene in January.
Ted Kresse, spokesperson for R.I. Energy, told Target 12 in a statement, “We recognize these winter rates are some of the highest we have ever seen in Rhode Island and we share the concerns about their impact.”
Kresse added that the company suspended a $6 per month customer charge for residential customers and $10 per month charge for commercial customers from October through April.
While New England has some of the highest energy rates in the country, Kogut said Rhode Island is cheaper right now than many of its neighbors, with electricity rates in Massachusetts nearly double compared to Rhode Island.
How Rhode Islanders can save money
Thousands of Rhode Islanders rely on the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to offset the cost of their heating bill in the winter.
Phyllis Minutelli and her husband were accepted to the federally funded program last year and told 12 News it has helped them tremendously.
“I think our gas bill was $250 or $260 a month in the winter,” she said. “They practically paid most of that. We had a very small amount to pay, so that’s why we could afford to get more groceries.”
The program also offers home weatherization, which helps families improve the efficiency of their homes. Minutelli had her old refrigerator replaced and was given a new air conditioner for the summer months.
“We had insulation and we didn’t have to pay a penny for it,” she said.
The program is run through the R.I. Department of Human Services in partnership with Community Action Agencies throughout the state. Households seeking the assistance must meet certain criteria, including making 60% or less of Rhode Island’s median household income.
For example, a family of two would have to make $44,512 or less to meet the qualifications.
DHS administrator Frederick Sneesby said the program helped about 26,000 households last year, and is expected to help about 35,000 households this year.
Unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which supplies direct financial support to low-income families, LIHEAP only give out benefits each year until the annual funding runs out.
“We could run out of money,” Sneesby said.
Another program Rhode Islanders can tap into is the Good Neighbor Energy Fund, which gives financial assistance to customers grappling with high heating costs through donations from the community.
Those who don’t qualify for heating assistance are advised to contact Rhode Island Energy, the state’s largest utility company formerly known as National Grid, to spread the payments out with budget plan over a 12-month period.
Rhode Island Energy customer advocate Samantha Perez is one of two people working to help those in the community enroll in heating-assistance programs.
She said the budget plan is a good option to spread out the cost over a longer period, which helps make the costs associated with winter heating and summer air conditioning less volatile.
“Customers get placed on a fixed monthly amount, the payments determine how much their average bill is,” said Perez.
Here are a few other ways Rhode Island customers can help lower their energy costs:
- Use natural light during the day
- Unplug unused devices, such as cell phone chargers
- Set ceiling fan so the blades spin clockwise to push down hot air
- Lower water heater to 120 degrees
- Set thermostat to 68 degrees