Just two days after intense criticism and threats of a state inquiry into its service cutoff practices, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. took the rare step yesterday of suspending electric service cut-offs for all residential customers through tomorrow.
BGE recalled all scheduled residential service disconnections because of expectations of 99-degree heat today, another hot day tomorrow and high humidity warnings that have been issued, company officials said.
"The health and safety of our customers is of great concern to us," E. Frank Bender, vice president of BGE's retail services, said in a statement. "And we will continue to monitor the situation closely."
Company officials said the temporary suspension of cut-offs was entirely weather-related and had nothing to do with a petition filed by the state People's Counsel Monday that asked state regulators to launch a formal investigation into the utility's cutoff policy.
The petition asserted that BGE stepped up its shut-offs and shut-off notices to customers after a winter in which natural gas prices more than doubled, causing heating bills to soar. The company also became more unreasonable about helping customers establish alternate payment plans to avoid termination, the petition stated.
"This has nothing to do with the petition," said Clare C. Miller, a BGE spokeswoman. "It's going to get really, really hot. We're worried about the health of our customers."
The last time BGE gave customers a reprieve on service was in February 1994, after a fire in a West Baltimore rowhouse killed seven children and two adults; it was one of the deadliest fires in the city's history. The family had been using a candle as its only source of light for five months after BGE cut off electric service to the rented home because of a $1,600 unpaid bill.
After the fatality, BGE gave 60 days of free service to all customers who called for help.
But the two days of grace this week will not affect customers who already have lost service this summer, Miller said.
According to the People's Counsel's petition, more than 22,700 residential customers lost utility service between April 1 and June 30 - 2,000 of them low-income customers who qualified for state energy assistance.
Miller could not say how many residential customers are still without service at this time.
But company officials cautioned customers with delinquent accounts to continue to seek bill-paying assistance and payment arrangements during this period.
In a summer that has already seen six heat-related deaths in Baltimore - the National Weather Service logged a high of 97 degrees yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport - today marks four consecutive days of scorching temperatures that have taxed BGE's electric system.
This week's hot weather caused electricity demand to reach an all-time peak in the mid-Atlantic region as air conditioners run at full blast, according to the PJM Interconnection, a company that oversees the region's power grid for 22 million customers.
Demand for electricity is expected to continue to rise as a result of weather conditions, prompting the PJM and BGE to ask customers to continue conserving electricity if health permits, especially between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
"It's good news," said People's Counsel Michael J. Travieso, whose office is the guardian of consumers' rights in utility matters.