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Sparks fly after upstate ratepayers told to brace for high heating bills

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ALBANY — Utility giant National Grid is urging its upstate customers to brace for much higher heating costs once temperatures plunge.

National Grid’s latest pricing forecast predicts its natural gas customers will see a 39% jump in heating costs this winter. Estimates suggest each household served by the utility, on average, will pay more than $260 over the five-month heating season, or more than $50 per month than what those customers were charged last year.

Advocates for low-income people fear the higher bills will be particularly burdensome for senior citizens and others living on fixed incomes, as they are already grappling with higher prices for groceries and other necessities due to inflation.

The warning, issued this week, is being met with cries of outrage from Rep. Lee Zeldin, the GOP candidate for governor, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and Steve McLaughlin, the Rensselaer County executive.

Zeldin linked the higher natural gas prices to a settlement early this year between the state Public Service Commission and National Grid that resulted in the utility abandoning an $80 million pipeline project — the so-called Albany Loop — while National Grid got the state’s green light to raise gas and utility prices by $329 million.

“This is ridiculously backwards and the exact opposite of what government should be doing,” Zeldin said before lambasting Gov. Kathy Hochul for taking the state in the “wrong direction.”

McLaughlin argued that higher rates for National Grid customers should be put on hold until state regulators have an opportunity to scrutinize the plan.

“I am calling on the PSC and state leaders to review this price hike and to investigate utility costs overall,” he said.

“Why are costs to New York families so much higher than anywhere else in the country?”

Stefanik blamed the spiking gas prices on “one party Democratic rule in Washington and New York,” vowing that House Republicans have a plan that will “unleash American energy dominance” and bring about lower energy and gasoline costs.

She noted she was a staunch opponent of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed by President Joe Biden last November.

In response to demands the state do more to protect utility customers from higher bills, James Denn, spokesman for the Public Service Commission, said the company’s supply cost for electricity and gas is driven by international supply and demand constraints “and is not controlled by state or federal regulators.”

“However, the provision of affordable utility service is at the core of the PSC’s mission.” Denn added.

“Governor Hochul signed into law an arrears forgiveness program that provided $250 million to wipe out the past due utility bills for low-income households this summer. The PSC approved an implementation plan for utilities that more than doubled the size of the Governor’s budget appropriation, making $557 million available for the arrears program.”

Denn said those moves to assist customers who had been behind on their bills “has helped to relieve some of the burden on customers with the greatest needs leading into this winter season.”

He also noted that regulators are working on a second phase of the arrears program and will continue to seek relief for those who will be impacted by the “dramatic commodity price increases.”

“Of critical importance, New York is working hard to build a grid powered by renewable energy so that New Yorkers aren’t subject to the volatility of the global energy market,” Denn added.

But McLaughlin said the programs teed up by the state to use public funds to pay down the bad debts of delinquent ratepayers do nothing to help protect middle class New Yorkers now being squeezed with higher costs to heat their homes.

“For the PSC to now admit a rate hike is needed to pay for a giveaway is outrageous,” McLaughlin said.

“The statement from the PSC is stunning and clearly shows average New Yorkers are being forced to foot the bill for failed policies on the state level and failed energy policies on the federal level that have led to higher gas prices.”

Denn said the PSC seeks to ensure utility customers have access to tools designed to help them better manage energy use. The commission also has a low-income discount program designed to ensure households pay no more than 6% of their income for gas and utility service, he said.

The federal government funds the Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides assistance to low-income families and seniors needing help with their energy bills. That program is typically managed by county governments or anti-poverty groups.

In New York, an estimated 600,000 households rely on National Grid for gas service. It also serves some 1.6 million electricity customers.

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