It's come to this

The rise in energy prices might have some Chicagoans seeking very alternative options. (Lenny Gilmore \ RedEye / June 3, 2014)

The fans and window air conditioning units that cool Shana Solarte’s apartment continue to draw the same amount of electricity as they have in the past.

But as of Sunday, that same amount of power comes at a higher price as new rates go into effect in the city, meaning higher end-of-the-month bills. Now that the overall wholesale price for electricity has increased, the majority of Chicago residents, who get their energy from Integrys Energy Services, can expect to see their bills increase by 14 percent to 18 percent, depending on the size of their homes.

“It’s going to be unfortunate, I’m sure,” said Solarte, 25, of Ukrainian Village. “It’s going to be a pain to get a higher bill even though we’re not using much more electricity.”

Prices are rising because the market lacks adequate competition among low-cost energy providers. Electricity production also is becoming more expensive as coal-powered plants make more investments to become environmentally friendly.

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The increase is across the board, according to nonprofit utility consumer advocacy group Citizens Utility Board. No matter if your bill comes from Integrys, Commonwealth Edison or any other alternative supplier, it will be higher in Chicago. The hike comes just as residents are turning on the air conditioning.

Residents like Solarte aren’t the only ones feeling the strain. Businesses, too, will be affected.

“Besides serving warmer beer or turning down the air conditioning, there’s not much I can do,” said Mark Kwiatkowski, owner of Headquarters Beercade, which powers 24 pinball machines, 50 arcades games and beer coolers. “I am just going to bite the bullet.”

On average, Kwiatkowski said he pays about $3,000 a month for electricity through Glacial Energy, a third-party provider. After the hike, he expects to pay about $400 more a month to provide electricity for the Lakeview bar. He has no immediate plans to charge for arcade games or raise prices in the bar, he said, but as he prepares to open a second location in River North, he faces some uncertainty.

“Especially if it gets hot, we get the double whammy of a hot summer and the increase. It is going to be painful,” he said. “For the new place, we don’t know what revenue is going to be. It’s going to be hard to budget for a percentage.”

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Any time rates go up, it’s not good for consumers, said David Kolata, executive director of Citizens Utility Board. However, he said they should keep in mind that last year’s energy prices were historically low.

Jonathan Ory, owner of Bad Wolf Coffee in Lakeview, earns a small profit margin at the 10-month-old shop, he said. And now he’s wary of getting a higher bill after the rate hike takes effect.

“It is definitely going to affect our bottom line a little bit,” he said.

Sarah Ory, bookkeeper and Jonathan Ory’s wife, doesn’t expect the increase to affect prices though, she said. With an electric bill that averages between $200 to $250 a month, the cost is small relative to food, rent and taxes. But coming off a long winter, which already wasn’t good for business, the timing isn’t ideal.

While the Orys’ prices will remain consistent, “it might raise some other prices” at other restaurants, Jonathan Ory said. “And it might make people make their restaurants a little bit warmer.”

Residents and businesses feeling the strain can take action to counteract the rate hike.

EXTRA: Be careful when switching energy providers

“Really simple” common sense things, such as remembering to turn off lights, closing windows when the air is on and using fluorescent light bulbs, can save the average consumer 4 percent to 5 percent annually, according to the utility board’s Kolata.

Consumers also can opt into “real-time pricing.” In this rate structure, he explained, prices are based on demand for electricity at different times of the day, as opposed to a daylong average. It doesn’t cut bills for everyone, but the utility board has found most who switch can save about 15 percent, Kolata said.

It also doesn’t hurt to shop around for an alternative supplier of energy, he said. With an alternative supplier, power still is delivered through ComEd, but the companies offer different rate structures that could save consumers money depending on their individual energy use and despite the across-the-board hikes.

“Make sure you read the fine print,” he said of switching providers. “Occasionally there are offers that aren’t what they seem.”

Solarte, whose share of the electric bill with her two roommates currently is about $20 a month, probably won’t be scrambling for funds when the new bill comes due, she said. But it might mean a warmer apartment and paying more attention to when appliances are running.

“We’ll be all right,” she said. “It’s just part of living in Chicago.” 

Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.


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