That's preposterous," said Joseph R. Satterfield, tossing out on his dining room table the familiar brown, white and blue monthly bill from the Potomac Electric Power Co. "A $13.49 fuel cost on top of a $19.21 [kilowatt hour charge.] Then I pay tax on the gross amount."
Satterfield shook his head in disgust. Not only are utility bills soaring, but he was without power for two full days and nights following the June 27 thunderstorm. Food spoiled. When he called Pepco, he was told something about a computer that he did not understand. He does not really know what the fuel cost on his bill is all about, except that it keeps getting higher and higher.
Joseph Satterfield, like thousands of others in the Washington area, is angry about utility bills. He is as angry, he says, as Californians are about property taxes. As a result of rising feelings like Satterfield's, officials say, utility costs are rapidly becoming a major political concern in the Washington area.
The June 27 thunderstorm, which struck with unusual savagery and left 130,000 customers without electricity throughout the Washington area, served to spur the already growing anger of Satterfield and his neighbors over the rising cost of utilities.
The lights went off at 7:29 Tuesday evening, they remembered, and did not come on again until roughly 7:20 on Thursday evening - two full days and nights later.
"I lost $23 worth of food," said Mildred Goodspeed, who lives down the street from Satterfield on 34th Place NE, a neat little section of brick row houses occupied mostly by retired people and located just east of the Anacostia River near Benning Road - and within sight of the giant smokestacks of Pepco's oldest power plant, the Benning Generating Station.
"I had to throw it out the back door," Mrs. Goodspeed said of her food. "That afternoon I had gone to the Giant from my doctors' appointment. I'm on a strict diet: I must have perishable foods like yogurt and cream cheese . . ."
What made the two-day outage so-difficult for Satterfield was that he and his wife had eight relatives from California visiting at the time. They had to buy food a day at a time, he said, and, without hot water, the men went unshaven. At night they used candles.
Because of complaints from so many people who went without power for so long - some three days or longer - the D.C. Public Service Commission has scheduled a hearing for July 21 to hear public comment on the issue.
A press release from the commission, which regulates utilities in the District, said the three commissioners are interested in hearing comment on Pepco's "service restoration procedures" with particular emphasis on the pace of restoration of lost power.
The commission will also ask about losses of food stocks and other damages with the idea of considering building an insurance factor into utility rates, quite a novel idea in the utility world. The company is not now liable for such damages by an "act of God" such as a storm unless it is proved in court to have been negligent.
A third issue has been raised by Marie Nahikian, an at-large candidate for the D.C. City Council, who charged that "the neighborhoods waiting the longest to have service restored were almost exclusively black communities dents."
Nahikian met with Pepco officials in an effort to elicit data on this subject, but emerged from the meeting dissatisfied after having been told a great deal about Pepco's computer that she didn't understand.
It is not clear whether the Public Service Commission will address the alleged discrimination issue.
John Grasser, a Pepco spokesman, explained the computer this way:
As the storm broke and calls began pouring in information was taken from the callers and immediately punched into the computer.
Putting all the information together as it came in, the computer would then spit out lists of where repairmen should go and what they should do in order to most efficiently and quickly deal with the electricity losses.
The computer's priorities were, in order, danger spots where lines were down, then 170 big feeder lines mostly along major avenues that were knocked out, then the smaller tap lines running along smaller streets, and finally the small service lines that run from the tap lines to individual buildings.
All the feeder lines must be repaired before any tap line will be repaired, and so on. Thus, said Grasser, an area where power was knocked out because of a damaged tap line might have to wait a long time before having power restored.
As a further refinement, the computer keeps a running tally, sorting out callers by the feeder lines and tap lines which serve them - so that the lines affecting the most people can be repaired first.
"There's no way you can discriminate because the computer sets the priority on the basis of severity," Grasser said.
However, Grasser said the computer is not set up to supply date by neighborhood or geographical area, showing which areas were out and for how long.
Regardless of what the commission decides to do about issues raised by the storm, Satterfield and his neighbors are likely to remain incensed about utility rates.
"Oh oh, you struck a nerve there," said Goodspeed when asked about the rates. "My God, we don't use what they're charging us for the water and the gas. My son and myself (live here) and he's out all day long and I'm sick in bed."
Satterfield, who said he is retired from the Department of Defense, is particularly angered and mystified by the "fuel cost" part of his bill - $13.47 in the current bill - that was added on top of the kilowatt hour charge of $19.21. With tax on top of that, the total bill is $34.32.
In the bottom left-hand corners of the bills is the notation "fuel cost per KWH" that shows that the cost per kilowatt hour has varied on the 18 bills that Satterfield has kept from a low of $.0093689 to a high of $.0210818.
Grasser said the fuel cost per kilowatt hour figure, which is calculated on the basis of how much Pepco pays for the coal and oil burned by its generating plants, can vary so widely not only because of varying costs of these fuels, but also because of other varying factors in the formula that the company uses to make the calculation.
These factors include money the company earns by selling power to other companies. Because of the way the formula is constructed, the fuel charge per kilowatt hour drops when the company earns a lot of money this way and rises when it does not. Since the amounts of these sales fluctuate a great deal, Grasser said, the fuel charge per kilowatt hour also may tend to fluctuate widely.
Grasser said that the fuel cost portion of bills was "minuscule" before the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and 1974 drove fuel prices up. Now, he said, it is a third of all bills on the average.
The fuel cost part of electricity bills has been controversial because the company can raise it from month to month without applying for permission to do so to the Public Service Commission in Washington, although the commission does review each month's figure and has the power to order changes.
In Maryland, the state legislature has passed a bill forcing Pepco to absorb the first 5 percent increase in fuel costs before passing them on to customers, and even when passing on the costs the company must apply for permission to do so to the Maryland Public Service Commission and go through hearings much as it must do in rate cases.
Grasser said this simply means that all those 5 percent losses must be made up eventually in other ways - most probably in applications for increased rates.
"I don't know how they (the power companies) arrive at such figures," said Satterfield. "With a city government that's a sham, you have no one to turn to . . . I'm so fed up with it all I'm thinking of selling out and going out to Albuquerque."