Chasing Warmth: The Burden of Energy Costs

This is the story of a family of four living in Gloucester. They recently moved into a new home and have been grappling with the extreme cost of energy. 

We bought a home last December and moved in in January. It’s a new house for us, but the house itself is old, built in 1853. My husband and I love old homes. We bought this house because it is old and historical. It has great features, architecture, and character. It is big and has a green yard – the features we wanted in our new home because our previous house was too small and only had a driveway. We also appreciate the quality of life that came with this house since it’s walking distance to downtown and has all the conveniences of city living.

Energy bill arrives in the mail. Photo by Erik Liu
Energy bill arrives in the mail. Photo by Erik Liu

With the new house, we knew we’d have a higher mortgage, but we never could have prepared ourselves for the cost of energy in our new home. We would consider ourselves middle income, both my husband and I work. However, our energy bills were costing us $1300-1400 per month after we moved in January 2023, and quickly became one of the largest expenses in our new budget. Heating oil was $950 a month, while electricity was between $400 and $450 a month. Our new home has pretty high ceilings, so the amount of heating we need is probably more than average homes. Still, we did not expect that we would pay so much for energy despite all our efforts to conserve energy.

With such high, unexpected energy costs, last winter was difficult. We survived the winter by paying a ton, just to keep the bare minimum of heating. At night, we kept the thermostat to 59°F. During the day we brought it up only to around 66°F. But then the cold snap happened in early February, and during that time, 66°F didn’t feel like enough. To keep our family warm at night we used a space heater. Each day, our family of four would huddle in one room of the house, gathered around the space heater. We even ate meals from this room, as it was too cold to linger beyond for long. The kitchen, which is normally thought of as the heart of the home, quickly became one of the most uncomfortable places to be in our house. We would go into the kitchen to prepare food, but bring it back around the space heater to eat.
One day my 7-year-old daughter asked: if we’re going to be cold like this, why did we move? 

In the winter, we’re in a constant battle chasing warmth, and we’re already wondering how we will manage it this year. I don't have a problem bundling up, but we are budgeting now for a worse case scenario. We have some savings, but we also have to plan for other things happening in the house. I get worried every time I get a bill from National Grid. What is it going to be next month? Will we have a cold snap again this year? 

Energy has literally become a burden for us just to live.

We had a contractor from MassSave come and do a home energy audit last year.  We were eligible for a MassSave rebate, and we were supposed to get $2,000 back in July of 2023, however, I am still having trouble getting my rebate. It’s been next to impossible to get a hold of someone from MassSave. Utility-run programs like MassSave are obviously not running efficiently, and I am not the only one who is waiting for a rebate. Why does it have to take public action for MassSave to respond how they should in the first place? Then what do I do?

What comes after this? Do the utilities pay any consequences for the pain they inflict on ratepayers? It is a form of cruelty for a for-profit utility to jack up rates to 65% more this past winter, causing financial stress and burden for so many residents. It is a jolt to the system for the customer to see such high rates. Many people in our communities are struggling to come up with the money to pay their energy bills.  The utility companies should not be allowed to punish those who cannot afford to pay the bills by shutting off their heating and electricity

Having a warm home and the lights on are basic human rights. 

For now I’m cold, and surrounded by cold. It puts me and my family in a state of distress.

I wasn’t thinking about the cost of energy in our new home search.  A lot of people in my community live on a fixed income with food assistance or rental assistance, and I can’t imagine what it’s like for them. 

Massachusetts should not push for electrification of everything to reduce CO2 emissions and help mitigate climate change without first addressing the energy burden crisis. In order for Massachusetts to fully electrify as a solution to climate change, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) must address the cost of electricity. As of now, I can’t afford to electrify everything and I cannot pay the exorbitant electricity rates. It is simple math.

It's very utopian to use the word kindness in this situation, but that is what I wish to see from these utility companies.