By Jay Fitzgerald | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT
With electric rates steadily climbing, critics say Governor Deval Patrick and his administration have failed to take steps to control prices, even as they have focused on improving efficiency and renewable power.
Businesses, consumers, and other critics say Massachusetts policymakers have neglected pipe lines, transmission lines, and power plants that could increase supply and slow price increases. The result: supply shortages and prices that are expected to double the national average this winter.
“This administration has known about this problem for a long time and for the last six or so years has done little about it,” said Robert Rio, senior vice president at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest business group. “They’ve simply ignored things they could have done to improve the existing energy infrastructure.”
As an example, critics point to Patrick’s recent decision to back away from an agreement with the five other New England governors to seek surcharges on customer bills to pay for new and improved natural gas pipelines, electric transmission lines, and other infrastructure improvements in the region. Patrick said the state needed more time to study its energy options before moving ahead.
“We aren’t pulling out of the agreement, just delaying it,” explained Mark Sylvia, the state undersecretary for energy. “Massachusetts asked for the delay so we can do an analysis of our existing analysis.”
The cost and availability of energy has returned to the spotlight following National Grid’s announcement on Sept. 24 that its winter rates would jump 37 percent over those of the previous winter, adding more than $30 a month to the average residential bill. The state’s other major utility, Northeast Utilities, has yet to file its winter rates, but it expects prices to rise, too.
The increases are blamed on an inadequate pipeline network unable to carry enough natural gas to meet growing demand from households, businesses, and power generators. The pipeline constraints have limited supplies when they are needed most, particularly during winter cold snaps, and have led to soaring gas prices in wholesale markets and spikes in electric generating costs.
One day last December, for example, a shortage of natural gas drove wholesale electric prices to $1,290 per megawatt hour, compared with an average price of $36, according to ISO New England, the regional grid operator. Those costs eventually get passed to consumers.