By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009
One woman said she has been choosing between paying her electric bill and paying rent. Another had tears in her eyes as she said she could not afford to pay her power bill by next Thursday, when Baltimore Gas & Electric said it would cut off service. Several other people were just plain furious.
More than 250 people packed the Chesapeake Beach Town Hall on Saturday morning to complain to BGE representatives about electric bills that in some cases have tripled this winter.
"I know it has been a tough winter so far," said Robert Oberle, a BGE customer relations representative. He said that cold weather and overworked heat pumps were primarily driving up homeowners' bills.
Oberle said that temperatures were 9 percent lower between November and January, compared with the same period a year ago. He said that in colder weather, heat pumps in homes use an auxiliary heater in the system, pulling twice as much electricity as the pumps normally would. Heating a home represents about 45 percent of a bill, he said.
But the audience angrily cut him off with boos, catcalls and personal stories. BGE employees were unable to finish their presentation.
"The customer service spiel is infuriating. It is insulting. These people are angry. These people are upset because this is criminal," said Roger Otchere, 42, of Breezy Point, who said he is facing a $2,200 electric bill for one month.
One man in the crowd said that his home normally uses 700 to 1,100 kilowatt hours a month. When he turned his heat off, he said, the usage shot to 4,200 to 4,700.
John Ortenzo said his bill went from $317 to $384 after he took down his Christmas lights and cut down on other electricity use at his Chesapeake Beach home.
The thermostat in Mary Miller's empty North Beach cottage is set at 55 degrees, but the bill for one month was $567, she said. The bill for her 6,200-square-foot home in Rockville, powered by Pepco, is less than half that for the cottage, she said.
Overall, BGE has tested about 2,000 meters this winter, said Mark Case, a senior vice president for the company's regulatory affairs, in an interview. Of those, few were found to have recording problems, he said.
"Our sampling of customers has shown the usage can double when [outside temperatures are] under 30 degrees," Case said. Older heating systems are not as efficient as newer ones, and all systems should be regularly checked by qualified technicians, he said.
"The homeowner has a responsibility to keep their systems in good working condition," Case said.
Many at the meeting said that the rates were unfair. But Case said data submitted by area electric companies to Maryland's Public Service Commission show that BGE rates are consistent.
According to that data, the average bill for 1,000 kilowatt hours used by a BGE customer between November and January was $154.55. A Pepco customer's average bill for that period was $149.17, and a Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative bill was $215.74.
The Public Service Commission has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 26 to investigate complaints filed by customers of the utilities.
State Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert) said that she would file a letter requesting further investigations of BGE's customer relations and billing systems.
Several residents said they called the phone number on their bill seeking an investigation, only to get a form a letter that, said Daren Dinkfeld of Chesapeake Beach, essentially said: "The meter was right. We were right. You were wrong. Pay your bill." He said that customers are at a disadvantage in fighting the company.
More than 100 residents filled out cards Saturday requesting investigations in which they would be able to speak with a representative from the Baltimore-based utility. BGE officials promised to look into each complaint.
BGE said it has special payment programs and offers price markdowns on several energy-efficient appliances. Officials also said the company is working on a campaign to educate residents about saving energy and is expanding services to help customers manage usage.
BGE provides service for about 8,000 customers in the northeastern part of Calvert County. About 142,000 customers in the three southern Maryland counties and Prince George's County are served by the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative.
Along with Kullen, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) also attended the meeting and promised to make sure BGE investigates each complaint.
"I have the ability to get the BGE bigwigs in Annapolis," Miller said.