Redesigned BGE bills provide more data to consumers New format itemizes gas and electric use

November 30, 1996|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Taking a cue from customers and other utilities, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has broken with the past and entered the information age. But not with new computers or satellites -- with its bills.

The $8.5 billion utility began mailing out redesigned bills to residential and small-commercial customers Nov. 12. Unlike past bills, the new bill separates electric and gas use, showing how much of each was used and the cost, including customer and fuel surcharges. Additionally, the new bill -- wider by about 2 inches than the older version -- eliminates the bar graphs that have been a staple of BGE bills since 1989.

"The old bills didn't answer a number of frequent questions that customers had -- namely, what makes up monthly gas and electric charges," said Greg Martin, a BGE manager of customer service.

BGE's new bill also reflects vast changes in the power industry, once a staid monopoly that is fast becoming competitive and deregulated. With the changes, utilities nationwide are searching for ways to become more "customer-friendly" and offer better service.

"Historically, utilities provides service that was one-size-fits-all," Martin said. "But we're not doing that anymore."

BGE's motives weren't entirely altruistic, though. The state's Public Service Commission and Office of People's Counsel had been urging BGE to retool its bills and provide customers with more disclosure for more than a year, said Frank B. Fulton Jr., the PSC's director of consumer assistance.

"BGE had always felt that a less technical bill was better, but there have been some customers who had complained, and some that have actually taken out calculators and figured out their bills to the penny," Fulton said.

To tackle the bill redesign, BGE last year formed half a dozen focus groups comprising eight people each, ranging from senior citizens to small-commercial users.

"One of the things people said loud and clear was that they wanted all the information on one page, so it was a challenge from that aspect because of the inherent design constraints," Martin said.

While the result looks more like a bank statement than a utility bill, BGE has boxed off a summary of what is owed and by when for customers who don't need to know details like how many therms of natural gas they used.

BGE can format a customer's bill to exclude much of the new data if so desired, although the company believes a "12-step guide" to reading the new bill included with all customer statements will alleviate confusion.

"The new bill does seem easier to read, with everything itemized," Fulton said. "And we haven't had any complaints thus far."

Fulton did say, however, that "less than half a dozen" customers have called with questions about the customer charge component of the new bills -- a state-authorized fee that has always been included in the bill but was never itemized.

The new bill will serve as a prototype for future customers of Constellation Energy Corp., the utility that BGE and the Potomac Electric Power Co. plan to form after they merge next spring. Martin said the bill redesign was well under way before the pending merger was announced in September 1995.

Martin added that eventually, large industrial customers such as Bethlehem Steel Corp. will receive a similarly designed bill.

Pub Date: 11/30/96

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