- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

Area residents are in for another shock when they receive their home-heating bills this month.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has raised the base rate it charges customers for their gas, despite warmer weather in January and natural gas prices that have started to fall.

Residential customers of BGE, which warms some 80,000 homes in Montgomery, Prince George's and Calvert counties in Maryland, saw their gas prices go up as much as 29 cents per British thermal unit, or therm, this month. BGE January bills were $170 on average, compared with $110 a year ago, the company said.

"You have two things working against you as a customer colder weather and the price of natural gas is high as compared to last year," said Rose Maria Kendig, a BGE spokeswoman.

But the National Weather Service says temperatures have normalized, and the wholesale prices for natural gas have dropped.

BGE is not the only utility that sends customers hefty bills this month. Washington Gas Light Co., which serves about 870,000 homes in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, also saw demand rise as customers tried to stay warm.

However, the company's per-unit rate for February is 3 cents lower than January. March rates also will fall by at least 10 cents because warmer weather is ahead and the price of natural gas is falling, said Tim Sargeant, a spokesman for Washington Gas.

He said home-heating bills for city dwellers using Washington Gas averaged $202.40 this month, compared with $179.22 last year. Bills rose even though they included a $50 per customer credit, part of $11 million the company charged its clients prior to 1994 in anticipation of potential regulatory expenses.

Colder weather and high natural gas prices also caused a boost in the bills of Washington Gas customers in Maryland to $203.56 from $145.23 last year, and Virginians are paying $196.87 compared with $132.74.

"Those numbers are higher and lower in different cases, and some customers have reported their bills have more than doubled from the previous period," said Mr. Sargeant.

Concerned customers have been calling their utilities and the Maryland Public Service Commission to complain. The agency that oversees utilities has received so many calls that it is investigating the rise in rates.

Residential consumers of natural gas were warned by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in the fall to expect to pay 70 percent more on average this winter than they did in 2000.

Colder weather was the main reason, as November and December set record low temperatures. But the turn of the year also set a record high for the price of natural gas, hurting consumers even more.

At the end of 2000, the price of 1 million British thermal units of natural gas hit $10. It has been slipping since, to about $5 yesterday.

But that price is still high compared with the same time last year, when it was about $2.50, said Ms. Kendig.

"At the beginning of every month, we set the therm price. We weight in the gas we stored over the summer at a much cheaper rate, and we estimate how much spot gas we are going to have to buy on the open market," she said. "Now the spot price is extremely high, but nowhere near what we are charging per therm because we are weighting in with the price we got over the summer."

Ms. Kendig added that prices eventually will fall, "but it's going to take some time to get there."

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