When Garrett Schick received his electric bill after Christmas and saw a 73 percent increase from his last bill, he and his family made the tough decision to return holiday gifts to make ends meet.
The 33-year-old’s family of three had been figuring out ways to manage their expenses since moving to Quincy from Dorchester in September. While they only increased their electricity usage by 17 percent last month, Schick’s December bill was $378.16, up from $218.50 the previous month. And his January bill is $30 more still — 85 percent higher than just two months ago.
The increase was “pretty staggering,” Schick said. “You start trying to figure out what the heck happened.”
As electric bills have skyrocketed this winter, Massachusetts residents like Schick are feeling the impact of factors such as inflation and the war in Ukraine. National Grid, one of the state’s major utility companies, said in September that the monthly electric bill of a typical residential consumer would increase by 64 percent, and the average monthly natural gas bill would increase by 24 percent for the six months beginning Nov. 1.
Meanwhile, Eversource filed an increase in electric rates in mid-November of more than 40 percent, which will last from January through June. And the company said monthly gas bills have increased by 25 percent or 34 percent over last winter, depending on customers’ location.
National Grid blamed “global conflict, inflationary pressures, and high demand” for the hike in utility prices, while Eversource said that “global pressures” increased the price of natural gas worldwide. Most of the electricity in New England is generated by plants that burn natural gas; the cost of natural gas has increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the natural gas shortage in Europe took hold.
After Schick’s December electricity bill came through, he revisited his family’s budget plans for the winter. They primarily shop at Trader Joe’s, he said, because it is significantly cheaper than nearby Star Markets and Stop & Shops. They cook dinners in larger batches that last multiple days and often make large quantities of homemade soups and freeze leftovers.
Schick also asked his employer to allow him to work from home more often, so he can save money on gas. (He is still driving 70 miles round trip every workday.)
Other area residents have applied to energy assistance programs through organizations like Quincy Community Action Programs and Action for Boston Community Development.
“We have already received about 17,000 applications, which is close to 1,200 more than last year, so we’ve seen close to an 8 percent increase,” Sharon Scott-Chandler, chief executive of ABCD, said.
QCAP in Quincy said it had a 50 percent increase in the number of new applications for heating assistance since December 2021. There has been an 88 percent increase since 2020, QCAP added.
Martha London, 67, from Malden, is one resident who applied for energy assistance with ABCD and was given up to $660 in benefits for the winter season starting in November.
“When I first started receiving fuel assistance, I noticed that my electric bills were lower than they normally were — like half,” London said. “It’s really a blessing.”
London — who is also a member of Massachusetts Senior Action Council — said she is in a better position compared to other members when it comes to paying her utility bills. She notes that she doesn’t have significant medical expenses compared to others.
“They’re choosing between paying for heat or paying for prescriptions,” London said.
Earlier in the fall, ABCD pushed the Legislature to include $10 million for heating assistance in the state’s latest economic development bill. The US Department of Health and Human Services announced in November that it is providing $4.5 billion to subsidize home heating costs this winter and cover unpaid utility bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Massachusetts received nearly $159 million in grants.
While the state received more than it does in a typical winter, QCAP and ABCD say there are still not enough funds to assist with heating and electric bills.
And despite the number of applicants increasing, officials at QCAP and ABCD are concerned that not enough residents know about fuel subsidies — and that many think they are unqualified because they don’t identify as low income.
“We just want to encourage everyone who is struggling to find out whether or not they are eligible,” Scott-Chandler said.
She added that it is a critical time for low-income households, because dealing with higher heating costs is “incredibly taxing and challenging.”
“All of the pressures are coming together because of the hikes in utilities, because the cost of inflation is so high, because rent is at an all-time high, because basic necessities are at an all-time high right now,” Scott-Chandler said. “And people’s incomes have not kept pace with that.”
Franklin resident Paul Fischer, 62, saw his National Grid bill increase from roughly $120 to $270 in the last two months. He and his partner decided to switch to Dynegy, a local energy company, which he said charges a third of what National Grid charges.
“I have always been happy with National Grid, and I wasn’t interested in switching to a different provider,” Fischer said. “Obviously, after I saw this humongous unannounced increase from one month to the other, immediately, I explored one supplier option we had.”
Several residents said National Grid’s reasons for raising prices weren’t convincing. Although London said fuel assistance has made paying for utility bills easier, she doesn’t believe utility companies should be allowed to make significant price changes.
“I don’t care what their reasons are,” London said. “They’re CEOs and shareholders who are making tons of money. I’d like to see some price controls, but I don’t expect to see that happen.”