IT SHOULD HAVE come as no surprise. We all had plenty of dire warnings and ominous predictions.
Still, that latest monthly bill from BGE hit me like a jolt from a 10,000-volt transmission line.
The cumulative effect of moonshot "commodity" prices, charges, taxes, etc. made me eager for the promised relief of energy deregulation in this state.
Then I remembered that, indeed, we already have that much ballyhooed benefit. For both gas and electricity.
The competitive forces of the marketplace, the wonders of Adam Smith's invisible hand are mightily at work to bless the consumer with lower prices. And, most important, the state Public Service Commission ever reminds us, the freedom to choose.
Guess that's why my January bill was well over twice what it was a year ago.
That invisible hand just made a fist and delivered a knockout blow.
The benevolence of the free market has quadrupled the price of natural gas in little more than a year. That has prompted those fierce competitors for the natural gas business in this state to abandon the residential market.
Natural gas is no longer just for heating or cooking. Nearly every new power plant in the country is using it to make electricity. Every plant that needs a new boiler is choosing natural gas.
The reason is that natural gas is clean burning, avoiding a lot of problems with air pollution.
That soaring demand for gas caused the market's invisible hand to jack up the price of other fuels.
Some folks have turned to wood-pellet stoves as an alternative source of heating their houses. Wood pellets were supposed to be clean, efficient and relatively cheap. And the stoves don't cost a lot to install.
But you read recently about the sudden shortage of wood pellets this winter.
The small producers can't keep up with the unexpected demand, and their supplies of wood scrap and sawdust to make the pellets have shrunk.
Heating oil prices are also on the steep ascent, up 40 percent by some national surveys. That may still seem like a relative bargain, a reasonable alternative for those empowered with the newfound freedom to choose.
The obvious problem is that you can't switch heating systems as fuel prices change. It's almost like changing houses.
But that's what my neighbor Mark is doing. He's fed up with the sky-high rates for electricity in the summer and the soaring natural gas prices in winter.
So he's packing up this month and moving to the West. To California? Yeah, right. There's another nice example of the benefits of consumer energy choice.
No, he's off to Montana, to Big Sky country.
He has been looking at that area for some time, thinking about relocating. But he finally pulled the trigger this year and one of the deciding factors was the freedom to choose his own energy.
I'm not talking here about Montana's public utility laws or the competitiveness of their energy supply companies.
What clinched the deal on a new home out there for Mark was the fact that he'll produce his own electricity: a hydroelectric turbine on a fast-flowing stream comes with the house.
There are also acres of mature trees, a ready source of fuel for the fireplace and stove. There's an ample log pile already cut to get him through this winter, but Mark's more than willing to cut his own come next spring.
"We looked at several places but the idea of controlling our own heat and light really sold us," he explained excitedly, fresh back from examining and settling on the new homestead.
Well, the freedom to chop and haul wood, the freedom to find your own generator repair parts in the middle of nowhere may appeal to him. It doesn't to me.
But he certainly has a point, with the water running free and the firewood available for the taking. Compare that to the $500 monthly utility bills that he faces here in Maryland, even with the curtains pulled and the thermostat turned down to 60.
The hydroelectric station was built by a wealthy couple who refurbished the log home a few years ago in preparation for the feared apocalypse of Y2K, my neighbor said.
When the cataclysm failed to materialize, the neophyte survivalists apparently took their gold coins, canned food and firearms and moved back to civilization -- and put their erstwhile Montana refuge on the real estate market.
For those of us relying on the system to meet our energy needs, there's not much to do but hope for a milder spring and summer.
The colder winter this season means we're not only paying more for each bit of energy, but using more of it to keep warm.
The experts are still looking for answers to the price/supply problems in the longer term.
Too little storage of natural gas in preparation for the heating season, and too little drilling for new supplies, are major explanations.
But deregulation has also come in for its share of the blame. As more states deregulate their utilities, energy traders have assumed a greater importance. And traders in anything, from currencies to pork bellies, are always able to take advantage of situations to make a killing. "Temporary imbalance" is their invariable excuse.
Meanwhile, Mark looks forward to being his own kilowatt king, a sovereign power, so to speak.
Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.