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With energy costs on the rise, what options do local residents have?

Central Maine Power utility lines, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Federal energy regulators have launched a probe of New England’s electric grid operator over payments to a Massachusetts power plant that filed for bankruptcy in March. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Central Maine Power utility lines, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Federal energy regulators have launched a probe of New England’s electric grid operator over payments to a Massachusetts power plant that filed for bankruptcy in March. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
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Energy costs are soaring, and right as Massachusetts residents begrudgingly turn on the heat before the winter kicks in.

National Grid supply prices rose substantially Nov. 1, going from about 15 cents per kilowatt hour to 34 cents per kilowatt hour — a 64% increase. Faced with those exorbitant prices, residents may have a harder time paying their energy bills.

For many local communities, however, there are cheaper alternatives.

Some towns and cities, including Chelmsford, Billerica, Dracut and Lowell, have municipal aggregation programs. That means local governments negotiate an energy contract with suppliers that fixes rates for its residents over several years.

While National Grid, or Unitil in some communities out in North Central Massachusetts, still will deliver the electricity, different towns choose different energy suppliers. In Billerica, for example, they use NextEra Energy Services.

Billerica Town Manager John Curran said residents are automatically enrolled in the program, as it’s significantly more affordable at just $.093 — or 9.3 cents — per kilowatt hour. They also have the option to enroll in a “green rate,” which Curran said he still believes would fall well below the National Grid price.

“I’m glad we got in when we did,” Curran said of the program, “because it sounds like communities are having trouble getting in now.”

Curran, a Woburn resident, has a rate of 17 cents, but if he lived in Billerica, he said he would have paid $90 less on his last energy bill. Billerica’s contract began in January 2021 and runs through January 2024, meaning they are locked into their rate.

Though he is unsure how many people have intentionally opted out, Curran said he’s spoken with Billerica residents initially concerned at the start of the program who have come around.

“If you want to go out and shop for a competitive rate, you got to go out and do it. But what happens is, you sign up for a rate that might be low in the beginning, but then the contract increases and you have to pay more in the end,” Curran said. “We take care of all that, and by default, you go onto the town’s negotiated rate.”

Dracut also has its own municipal aggregation program, and its energy supply costs residents just 10.47 cents per kilowatt hour, said Community Development Director Alison Manugian. They’re in an energy agreement with Constellation New Energy until December 2023, Manugian said.

“Obviously, the current rate is much lower than what National Grid is talking about,” Manugian said. “I think for a lot of residents, the other benefit is that it’s predictable. They’re locked in for a three-year period.”

But there are also places, like Littleton and Ashburnham, that run their own municipal utilities.

Nick Lawler is the general manager of the Electric Light and Water Departments in Littleton, where they connect to National Grid transmission lines but distribute energy to Littleton and Boxboro with other suppliers.

The biggest benefit of being independent is “control,” Lawler said, and as a nonprofit, the money they generate goes back into their operation. A board of Littleton residents approves rates and decides how much is appropriate to go back into the departments’ system versus how much residents are charged.

“We also have the ability to meet the environmental goals of Littleton and Boxboro,” Lawler said. “We’re about 35% renewable, which is, again, ahead of where National Grid is at this time.”

The current Littleton residential rate, according to their website, is about $0.133 per kilowatt hour.

Unitil covers Fitchburg, Townsend, Ashby and Lunenburg, but only Ashby and Lunenburg have their own municipal aggregation programs, meaning “they will see no change this winter,” said Alec O’Meara, the media relations manager at Unitil. Fitchburg and Townsend residents must pay for their energy supply at fluctuating rates.

Their current rate of 13.4 cents per kilowatt hour will increase to a whopping 22.2 cents starting Dec. 1. It’s the highest price O’Meara’s seen in his almost 13 years at the company.

“Historically in New England, over the past 10 years, the supply rate has gone up in the wintertime and it has come down in the summertime. That’s a pattern that you’ve seen over the last decade for quite a while,” O’Meara said. “That said, we are in unprecedented times right now in the energy industry.”

Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire — where Unitil operates — are experiencing the effects of a “global energy crisis,” O’Meara said. New England is the only region in the country that has to ship in natural gas because there isn’t enough pipeline capacity here, he said.

Liquid natural gas is frozen and shipped to communities here, but that means cities and towns have to compete with Europe, which is also in the midst of its own energy crisis because of the war in Ukraine, O’Meara explained. The ripple effects are drastic.

“All utilities in New England that are securing their energy supply through these alternative suppliers are seeing the impacts as their rate comes off of this very regulated, scheduled process when they go out to bid,” he added. “That’s why this increase is occurring.”

Fitchburg is in the process of rolling out its own electricity aggregation program, but it’s been delayed. There are about 30,000 Unitil customers in Massachusetts, O’Meara said.

To save on energy bills, O’Meara encouraged residents to switch out light bulbs and appliances or conduct a full-scale audit to find ways to increase energy efficiency. For those interested in financial assistance programs, O’Meara pointed to masssave.com.

Here is a list of other local communities on municipal aggregation contracts and their current rates:

• Ashby: $0.11210 / kWh

• Chelmsford: $0.10042 / kWh

• Lancaster: $0.14974 / kWh

• Lowell: $0.14449 / kWh

• Lunenburg: $0.11740 / kWh, as of December 2022

• Shirley: $0.10577 / kWh

• Tewksbury: $0.10949 / kWh

• Tyngsboro: $0.10943 / kWh

• Westford: $0.10470 / kWh, basic rate