25 Investigates: Why utility bills are so high and how you can get help if you’re behind on payment

NORTON, Mass. — When the temperatures dropped last winter, Anthony DeRosa was stunned by how much it costs to heat his 3,600 sq. ft. home using natural gas.

“It was definitely a shock seeing that first bill,” DeRosa said.

The first eye-opening bill from National Gird was for $681.89 in December, he said. The next month the heat cost $725.18, followed by $594.98 in February and $504.95 in March. In total, DeRosa’s bills show he paid $2,504 to heat his four-bedroom house during the coldest months of the year.

“We never got it down less than $500,” DeRosa said. “Even being very strict with how we used the heat.”

Fortunately, DaRosa said he’s able to pay his bills, but so many others can’t. More than 800,000 Massachusetts residents owe a combined $826 million on overdue gas and electricity bills, according to data submitted to the Mass. Dept. of Public Utilities by energy companies, including National Grid and Eversource. The past-due amount from Massachusetts residents was only $450 million in Dec. 2019.

“The main factor for the higher costs is natural gas prices have gone up considerably,” MIT Professor of Energy Economics Chris Knittel said.

The cost of energy has risen amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. State utility regulators also blame the limited ability to transport natural gas in the region, and trouble estimating how much electricity customers will use. Knittel says all energy prices, even electricity, are tied to the cost of natural gas, which has more than quadrupled since 2020.

The data reveals the amount owed by low-income households who are between 30 and 90 days late on their bills has more than tripled. Higher-income households are getting hit particularly hard: the amount those residents owe overall has risen nearly twice as much as low-income households.

“Low-income households tend to spend a significant share of their income on energy, sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent,” Knittel said.

Residents were protected from utility shut-offs until April 1. Those in need can still apply for help from the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program until May 12. The state is providing nearly $600,000 in grants for residents who are ineligible for federal heating assistance, but that’s far from enough help for the hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents facing heftier gas and electricity bills. According to the DPU, 186,541 residents had applied for state assistance as of Apr. 11, an increase of 13 percent from last year.

“Right now, we’re trying to focus on not shutting anyone off and trying to make sure everyone stays on,” National Grid Chief Customer Officer Helen Burt said.

National Grid and Eversource also offer assistance programs. Both companies said they’re seeing an increased demand for help.

“I would recommend customers go online. We’ve got a whole number of programs that are in one package. We start with what can you do to use less, then how can you manage your bills. We’ve got balanced payment plans, discount rates, every kind of debt forgiveness...we’ve got all kinds of programs people can apply for,” Burt said.

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