Rising utility prices worry students, Chicago residents

Eighty-three percent of DePaul’s student body lives off campus. Many students are already pinching pennies to pay rent in Chicago, and with increased utility prices, students’ budgets are only getting smaller. 

Gas companies Nicor and People Gas are requesting an increase in the cost of distribution from Illinois. This change could cause customers in Chicago to pay more for utilities.

“On top of rent already being expensive, it will definitely affect me,” sophomore Sophie Thongvanh said. “Being a college student, [I] already [have] to budget out groceries and new spaces of living.”

Utility prices usually have a set amount for the commodity itself, and on top of this price companies, such as Nicor or People Gas, charge for the distribution of this gas. This distribution charge includes the cost and maintenance of infrastructure for gas and electricity. “The ‘Gas Charge’ on your monthly bill is the market price of gas times the amount you used. The utility doesn’t directly control that. What Peoples and Nicor are trying to increase is the ‘distribution’ part of the bill, but that’s still a lot of money,” explained Eric DeBellis, General Counsel for Citizens Utility Board (CUB).

However, for Peoples Gas company in particular, the charge of the commodity itself has increased in recent years. 

“Service [from] Peoples was not always this expensive,” said DeBellis. “10 years ago, it was a normal utility. Now, your fixed charge before you use a single therm of gas. We get calls all the time from people saying, ‘I was on vacation, I didn’t use anything, everything was off, and my bill was almost $50.’ That’s the fixed charge.”

While the cost of gas itself has fluctuated in the last several years because of global events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the current cost of the gas itself is not as high as it was when the peak of these events first began. However, in the last several years, utility companies have increasingly asked for more money for the distribution.

Currently, Peoples Gas is seeking an increase of $402 million. 

“A huge, huge, huge driver of most of that is their increased cost of capital, so building stuff, basically,[as well as] trying to increase the rate of return that they get on financing that infrastructure,” DeBellis said.

However, that number does not reflect the total cost, rather the costs of new infrastructure are broken up into multiple years, similar to a payment plan. 

“When they build some long-term project that is going to be used for decades, that full cost isn’t reflected immediately in that year’s bills, it’s amortized over the life of the accent,” DeBellis said. 

In an 2020 article from Chicago Business, nearly one-third of Chicagoans struggled to pay for gas in the summertime, when gas is not used as much.

CUB, along with other organizations, are accelerating efforts to replace gas with other methods. 

“CUB is supporting the Better Heat pilot proposal and a proposed ordinance pending before the Chicago City Council right now that would set an emissions standard for new construction (with some exceptions) that would effectively prohibit new homes from being hooked up to Peoples gas network in the first place (Their appliances would be electric),” DeBellis wrote in an email to The DePaulia. “People charges customers roughly $50 a month just to be connected to the system, so that’s a lot of headroom for the additional electric costs to still be a net savings.”

While organizations like CUB fight utility increases in the political arena, DeBellis says there are things students can do to cut costs. 

“The simplest is, especially when you’re not home, setting the thermostat [lower],” DeBellis said. “Some people, this isn’t [as] suggested for renters, own things like smart thermostats that can schedule usage. Your utility has a rebate program on those [technologies].”

In short, stocking up on sweaters and turning down the thermostat is one of the most effective ways for students to cut costs. 

Students can also live in on-campus housing, where housing rates “have not been raised more than the normal inflation costs for next year,” said DePaul Director of Housing and Residence Life Rod Waters.