- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

BALTIMORE

Maryland regulators grilled utility representatives at a hearing Thursday over an outpouring of complaints by customers who’ve seen their energy bills soar in recent months.

“This is a call to arms,” said Douglas R.M. Nazarian, chairman of the Public Service Commission. “We have to find out what´s happening, and the public needs to know why their bills are what they are.”

Mr. Nazarian said the commission has received about 2,200 complaints this winter, nearly 80 percent of which were for higher-than-usual bills.

Paul Hassler, of Rockville, paid less than $500 during winter 2003 to heat his two-story home, and said his bills haven’t increased significantly until now. But his last monthly bill was for more than $1,250, even though he has consumed less energy in terms of kilowatt hours.

“It’s killing people, I mean bills have tripled or quadrupled, and now your heating bill is like a mortgage payment, it’s just ridiculous,” Mr. Hassler said.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. representatives say higher electricity rates, a much colder winter and longer billing periods are the primary culprits for this season’s high bills.

“There are only two reasons why gas and electric bills go up: One is prices, the other is consumption … and electric and gas consumption is up rather dramatically,” said Wayne Harbaugh of BGE.

The company has received 11,000 complaints this winter, just under 1 percent of its 1.2 million customer base.

January was 15 percent colder than normal and 22 percent colder than January 2008, Mr. Harbaugh said. There have been twice as many hours this winter with temperatures below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, which has lead to a dramatic increase in consumption, he said. In addition, electricity rates are up about 12.5 percent from last winter.

Regulators said a colder winter and higher rates would account for up to a 15 percent increase in costs, but not double or triple as some customers have seen.

Commissioner Harold D. Williams said according to his energy bill, temperatures in January were actually lower last year than they were this year, and said he is not convinced that a colder winter would cause a 100 percent increase in energy bills.

“Just looking at my own bill, comparing it to last year, I know that there´s not a 15 percent differential. So we can´t sit back and say ‘it´s the weather,’ ” he said.

Ralph N. Markus, director of the state Office of Home Energy Programs, said the number of customers receiving government assistance for energy bills is likely to double this year.

BGE representative Jeannette M. Mills said the company has $44 million in uncollectable bills because customers cannot afford to pay them. She added that the company is not sure how bad things could get if the economy continues to worsen.

“The effect of the economy is an unknown, we simply don´t know how bad the economy is going to get,” she said.

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