Ordered to phase out its discount for customers living on a small amount of electricity, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is about to test an alternative in which customers pay for their power in advance and then monitor their usage penny by penny on a special computer.
Consumer advocates criticized the proposal yesterday, saying the new "PowerStat" program wasn't a good replacement for the little-used "Economy Service" discount because it doesn't give needy people a break in electricity rates, which have risen dramatically in the last couple of years.
Starting next month, however, 50 Baltimoreans will spend the next year testing out small computers BG&E will install free in theirhomes. The computers will display their electricity use, penny by penny and minute by minute, BG&E officials said.
Under the program, customers will buy a card similar to a credit card from BG&E and will slide the card through a slot in the computer to pre-pay their bills. Once they use all the electricity they've bought, a device connected to the computer will shut off their power. Customers can turn their power back on, or keep it going as their credit runs down, by buying another card from BG&E and running it through the slot.
But BG&E officials said yesterday they will program the computer not to shut off customers' power during the winter heating season to comply with the state's law against shutting off utilities needed for survival.
S. Edward Hargest, manager of economic research for the Baltimore-based utility, said that BG&E wasn't offering a discount to PowerStat customers, even though the company would get its money up front and would be saved the expense of reading the customers' meters, because buying and installing the computer costs $400 per household.
Besides, he noted, if the program is expanded, new customers will save because they won't have to pay a deposit to get electricity service turned on if they move into homes with PowerStat equipment already installed.
Mr. Hargest said BG&E is testing the program to see if customers who want help keeping their utility bills down will conserve energy when they can see exactly how much electricity they are using and exactly how much it is costing at every moment.
BG&E has already identified the customers it wants to try out the new program and will start calling them next week, Mr. Hargest said.
Lilo Shifter, a member of the state Public Service Commission, said that regulators had ordered BG&E to phase out its 9-year-old Economy Service because it "was not a very efficient solution to the problem" of the thousands of customers who have difficulty paying their utility bills.
Economy Service, which limited customers to a small amount of electricity in return for a 15 percent discount, had only 357 clients when it was closed to new customers early this year.
BG&E stopped actively promoting Economy Service in 1985 after realizing the company was earning almost no profit on the program.
But while the commission approved BG&E's test program, Ms. Shifter said that she doesn't see PowerStat as a replacement for Economy Service.
Describing the PowerStat experiment as "very helpful," Ms. Shifter said she and the other commissioners felt that it was up to the state legislature to give electricity rate discounts to the needy.
Noting that the legislature has set up a discounted "lifeline" rate for low-income telephone users, Ms. Shifter said that the commission doesn't have the jurisdiction to require some utility users to subsidize others.
But People's Counsel John Glynn, the attorney appointed by the governor to represent consumers in utility matters, said that the commission approves small subsidies between groups of customers all the time.
"They are using the statute as a way to avoid responsibility," Mr. Glynn charged.
He said that while the PowerStat program might be useful for some customers, it was not a good replacement for Economy Service in these days of rising electricity costs.
BG&E, which has won approval for several rate increases in the last couple of years, will start charging its higher summertime rate of 10.36 cents a kilowatt hour June 1 -- a 1.3 cent-an-hour increase over its winter rates. The average electric bill for BG&E users of 600 kilowatt hours a month reached $56.93 this year, up more than $6 from last year's average monthly bill.
Mr. Glynn said that he fears the prospect of widespread installation of the computers in low-income neighborhoods. "My concern is where this will all lead . . . I think it will put a lot of pressure on the poor."