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High natural gas prices, hot weather drives costly New Orleans utility bills, Entergy says

Denise Bickham new orleans resident entergy bill
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New Orleans City Council livestream
New Orleans resident Denise Bickham brandished her latest Entergy New Orleans utility bill for $461, saying she didn't trust the company and she lives on social security month-to-month, during the latest Utility, Cable, Telecommunications and Technology Committee meeting Tuesday, July 12, 2022.

Amid skyrocketing energy bills, Entergy New Orleans officials attributed the higher costs to two factors during a City Council committee meeting Tuesday: spikes in natural gas prices and hot summer temperatures.

This past June marked the hottest on record, according to the National Weather Service office in Slidell. A heat advisory was issued for nearly 11 days out of the month for portions of southeast Louisiana, with heat indexes exceeding 110 degrees some days, encouraging more air conditioning use to cool homes.

Higher usage combined with a volatile natural gas market, fueled by the war in Ukraine, increased natural gas exports and supply chain issues. In May, the cost of natural gas rose to a level not seen since 2008, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The difficult part of this is that the drivers are really things that … none of us can really control,” said Courtney Nicholson, Entergy’s vice president of regulatory and public affairs. “We don't know when they will go down. We hope that they will.”

The company’s strategy for addressing the high bills hinges on a public service campaign aimed at informing customers about ways to lower their bills by tracking and limiting consumption. Entergy has several digital tools available to analyze bills and monitor usage during the month; though, City Council member JP Morrell noted New Orleans’ technology and internet gaps create barriers for those most burdened by increased costs.

That problem was personified by one public commenter. Denise Bickham, a retired New Orleans resident, told the Council her Entergy bill cost $461 in June for her 1,300-square-foot house.

In the past, she’d participated in a pilot program that gave her a small, digital tracker that sat on her table and told her how much energy she had used that month. Now, Entergy has an online tool that does something similar, but she doesn’t know how to access it — nor does she trust it.

“I got new windows. I keep my blinds closed. I want it to be dark and cool in my house,” Bickham said. “I'm upset. … They help themselves. They're not helping me. They're not helping people like me.”

Morrell doubted she was alone and said part of the city’s plan is to revamp its Energy Smart program geared toward incentivizing energy efficiency in one of the country’s most energy-burdened metro areas.

Council members Oliver Thomas and Joe Giarrusso also questioned whether Entergy New Orleans could invest in more “hedging,” which is a way for utilities to protect customers from the volatility of the energy market by locking in a set rate with its supplier. The method is used during the winter months when most homes rely on gas heating.

Giarrusso even wondered if a contract could be made in the coming weeks as gas prices are currently trending downward.

Nicholson said Entergy hasn’t hedged on gas for the summer since 2003 because it “hasn’t been in the money” but will ask the company’s system planning staff to look into it.

“It's really hard to predict, given everything that's going on internationally, how far down it will go and what to expect. But we are analyzing it,” she told the Council.

In the meantime, the weather isn’t cooling down, and Entergy staff encouraged residents to leave their thermostats at 78 degrees and call their office for help managing utility bills.

Residents who need help paying their bill can also connect with local nonprofits like the New Orleans Council on Aging or Total Community Action, Inc. to find out if they qualify for emergency or low-income home energy assistance.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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