5 ways to combat rising electricity and natural gas rates in Alberta

Many Albertans are struggling to stomach rising rates and fees for natural gas and electricity.

From switching contracts to lightbulbs, experts share money-saving strategies

Edmonton resident Tracy Sorochan is one of many Albertans concerned about rising utility costs. (Submitted by Tracy Sorochan)

Tracy Sorochan's utility bill just keeps climbing.

She and six other people share a five-bedroom duplex in northwest Edmonton, and for a year and a half, they paid about $550 per month for utilities, largely for electricity and natural gas.

In November, their bill jumped to $647, then hit $720 in December.

"We were able to afford everything fine, no problem, but now this extra $200 means we have to cut our groceries short," she told CBC News on Thursday.

"It's very hard because a couple of us just got our jobs back after being laid off."

Like Sorochan, many Albertans are struggling to stomach rising rates and fees for natural gas and electricity.

"Unfortunately, it's a bit of a perfect storm for Alberta residents," said Joel MacDonald, the founder of the energy comparison website energyrates.ca.

He said many factors, including this winter's cold snap, are contributing to the increases.

"When there was a slowdown in oil and gas prices, a lot of companies restricted their activities and that took a fair bit off the grid," he said. 

Oil prices have gone back up again and so has demand.

The carbon tax also increased, affecting the price of natural gas.

Some of these things are out of Albertans' control, but there are ways to bring the cost of bills down.

Switch contracts

Competitive retailers offer both floating and fixed rates. A few years ago, consumers who opted for floating rates benefited from lower prices, MacDonald said, but now Albertans are entering a period of price uncertainty.

Since demand on the electricity grid is increasing and there are supply constraints linked to the transition from coal to natural gas, he said consumers worried about price jumps should consider switching from floating to fixed-rate contracts.

"Over the very long term, the fixed rates are actually cheaper than the floating rates," he said.

In the past, getting out of an electricity contract was difficult, but all of the major retailers have free 30-day exits in their agreements, he added.

"If in six months someone has a cheaper rate, then just sign up for that new product."

Program your thermostat

"One of the best ways to reduce your consumption is to think about how to reduce the amount of energy that's been lost in your home through heating," said Yasmin Abraham, co-founder of Empower Me, an energy and education social enterprise.

She suggests programming the thermostat to decrease heat at night or when people are out of the house. 

Insulate and seal

Tera Born with Grande Prairie's Illuminate Energy Inc., which offers home energy audits, recommends homeowners insulate and seal their attics. 

"That's one of the best ways to maintain the temperature and the heat inside your home," she said. 

If insulation functions like a sweater, she said, sealing acts like a Gore-Tex jacket, helping to retain a home's heat.

Energy advisers use a blower door test to measure air leakage in homes. (Submitted by Tera Born)

Switching to solar

Solar panels have become 90 per cent cheaper over the past decade, according to Adam Yereniuk, director of operations at Kuby Renewable Energy, an electrical contracting company.

Not everyone can afford their upfront cost, but they could be a good long-term investment for people planning to stay in the same house for at least 10-15 years, he said.

"The average system will probably pay for itself in about half or less than half of its warranty life," he said.

As with other home energy retrofits, federal and municipal grants can help offset the cost.

Solar panels installed on a house in northern Alberta. (Submitted by Tera Born)

Swap lights, appliances

Upgrading incandescent lights to LED lights is a lot cheaper than buying new windows or adding solar panels to a home, which is why Yereniuk calls them the "low-lying fruit" of energy efficiency.

He also suggests avoiding turning on the oven to heat small items.

"You can get a little toaster oven that can save quite a bit of your electricity," he said.