Could utility deregulation mean lights out for some customers?

In every state that has moved toward deregulation, consumer activists have raised concerns about whether low-income customers would be worse off as power producers vied for more affluent users and shunned the poor.

Regulators and power companies in the Washington area say that under deregulation, customers will retain all the protections they have now and in some cases gain some help. The rules as set up now all require that current utility companies remain the providers of last resort, providing service to customers who don't choose another provider.

The biggest change is in Maryland's electricity program, due to open to customer choice July 1, 2000. That state has set up a $34 million universal service fund, paid for by a charge of about 50 cents a month on the bills of all users.

That fund will help some residents who are in arrears on their power bills get even before the start of competition. It will also help low-income customers pay their bills and make their homes more energy-efficient.

"They're better off in Maryland than they were before the restructuring legislation passed," said Michael J. Travieso, the Maryland people's counsel, who represents consumer interests before the Public Service Commission. (For more information, contact the Maryland Energy Assistance Program at 1-800-352-1446.)

In Virginia, details of low-income and related programs have not been settled, but a panel including power-company representatives and community groups is meeting to consider them, said Eva S. Teig of Virginia Power.

"All of these issues are right now under the microscope," Teig said.

The District has not yet decided whether to deregulate electricity.

Gas customers in all three jurisdictions already can choose their producers, through either pilot programs or full deregulation. "Any benefit that the low-income customer was entitled to under bundled services is still available under deregulation," said James Wagner, manager of regulatory affairs at Washington Gas Light Co., which operates in all three jurisdictions.

Wagner said his company is in discussions with the District about setting up a program where low-income customers would be lumped together and their business bid out to suppliers with the aim of getting a bulk discount. "We're hopeful it will begin for this heating season," he said.