By Alex Lippa
---- — PLAISTOW — Several selectmen’s faces fell when they saw their latest electric bills.
“It was a big surprise,” Selectman Michelle Curran said at a recent meeting. “I would have appreciated some more notice.”
Curran said many residents’ electric bills have doubled this winter. The town is planning to speak with Unitil about why they are seeing such hikes in their electric bill.
“We’ve had numerous complaints,” Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald said. “They’ve been very costly. Whatever we can do to get voices available to them we are going to do.”
The increases are due to a rise in the cost of natural gas, Unitil spokesman Alec O’Meara said.
“Our supply rates are currently 9.55 cents per kilowatt-hour,” he said. “Last winter, they were only 7.2 cents per kilowatt-hour.”
O’Meara said those numbers are essentially out of Unitil’s control.
“We’re a divested utility,” he said. “We don’t generate our own electricity. But we expected the price of natural gas to go up and that’s what happened.”
Lacey Girard, spokesman for ISO New England, which oversees New England’s bulk electric power system, said there were several reasons the prices are so high.
“We’ve seen an increase in demand for natural gas in New England in both the electric generation sector, as well as the heating sector,” she said. “But the pipelines that carry the gas have not kept pace. Constraints on the natural gas pipelines can push up the price of natural gas, which can also increase the price of wholesale electricity.”
Girard said the demand for natural gas for power generation has skyrocketed in the past decade. In 2000, natural gas generated 15 percent of New England’s electricity. In 2012, it generated 52 percent.
O’Meara said the supply rates operate in six-month cycles.
“There will be a new supply rate in May,” he said. “Then there will be a change.”
Fitzgerald said he hopes to invite a Unitil representative to a future selectmen’s meeting. He is also considering writing a letter to the state’s public utilities commission.
Selectmen’s Chairman Robert Gray said the town may need to look elsewhere.
“There could be other electric providers which may look to take Plaistow on,” Gray said at a recent meeting. “Our hands aren’t tied, like it is in a cable contract. If they don’t want to listen to us and hear our concerns, we can do that.”
Gray said he also noticed that he was billed for a service fee based on kilowatt hours, that he had never seen before. O’Meara said there were no changes to how Unitil bills customers.
O’Meara said he wasn’t sure Plaistow would be able to find a better supply rate.
“They can see if they can find a more competitive rate than the default rate,” he said. “They are free to explore options they have if they can find better options, but that isn’t our part of the bill.”