The president of Virginia Electric and Power Co. said yesterday the utility has investigated the personal household electricity consumption of some consumer activists to determine if they were coning energy.
"We checked it for a few of them to see if they've conserved as much as they say," said Vepco president Stanley Ragone. "Some of them have had major increases (in electricity use) . . . I won't discuss names."
Ragone told a reporter the checks were made on 10 staff members of the Consumer Congress of the Commonwealth of Virginia, a group that began opposing utility rate increases in 1975 and that is fighting Vepco's $246 million rate increase request before the State Corporation Commission.
"It's just incredible to me," said Marion Tucker, Consumer Congress's Northern Virginia director. "I really think of myself as a member of the establishment. I've got two kids, a house and a car and Vepco is looking at my bills as if I'm some sort of crazy radical."
Ragone and Tucker confronted one another yesterday outside a Fairfax County hearing room packed with 200 people attending one of the commission's "on-the-road" hearings on the proposed Vepco rate increase, the largest pending utility rate increase request in the country.
"You all talk conservation," said Ragone to Tucker. "You (the Consumer Congress) say you've got the most guts to do it, and if you don't do it then what hope do I have that everyone else (will do it)?"
Tucker had no immediate answer, but another person associated with the consumer groups, Diane Wetchler, said later, "It seems a little undercover to me, a little sneaky to me. How much did Vepco spend looking into it?"
Wetcher said Ragone had surprised her yesterday by raising the issue during a private hallway conversation. She said the president of Vepco told her that "all but one of the staff of the Consumer Congress had not reduced their (electricity) consumption."
The Washington Post reported late last year that electric utilities in the Washington area keep files on their critics, checking where they meet and what is said and done - in public. Any implication that there is more in their files than that, the companies said, is wrong.
"We attend their meetings but not undercover," said a Vepco spokesman at the time. "We have informational files on the people and what they say, but we don't go into their background."
The question of electricity cnservation is important to the Vepco rate increase case, because the company contends that projections of increased consumption is one reason it must spend $600 million a year on new construction projects. The construction accounts for much of the large rate increase request.
Conservation has been a theme that the Consumer Congress has played upon, charging that Vepco will ask for rate increases to make up for revenue lost through conervation.
"The consumer has discovered that conservation does not pay," said Consumer Congress Chairman Diane Worthington during her testimony yesterday before the commission, which regulates utility rates in Viginia.
The day of lively public testimony from housewives, businessmen, elderly persons and local public officials before two of the three commission members was filled with outrage at Vepco's rate increase request.
"A lot of the people simply can't cope with it in my district," said state Sen. Charles Waddell (D-Loudoun). "They have literally reached the breaking point where they have to choose between eating and keeping warm."