Electricity co-op for residents pursued

Council resolution to ask PSC to lift ban

sponsor hopes to trim 15% from higher rates


A resolution set for introduction in the Howard County Council on Monday seeks to open the way legally for an electricity cooperative covering residential customers in the county.

The effort is separate from a similar move by the Columbia Association, which hired CQI Associates as a consultant last week to create a co-op for Columbia residents who belong to the group.

The countywide measure, which has support from the three Democrats on the five-member council, would ask the state's Public Service Commission to declare a lack of sufficient competition in the electricity market in the county. A council vote is set for July 3.

If the resolution passes, the county would petition the PSC. If the commission agrees that competition is lacking, it would remove a legal barrier to creating a co-op for residential customers. Businesses already may form or join co-ops.

The sponsor, Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is running for county executive, is pushing the idea as another way to potentially blunt the effects of the July 1 introduction of 72 percent higher electricity rates from BGE.

He hopes that his effort, if successful, could trim 15 percent from the higher electricity bills, he said.

"I want every tool at my disposal to soften the blow of the rate increases on Howard County citizens," Ulman said, as he discussed the idea with several elderly residents recently at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Harper's Choice, accompanied by several Democratic delegates and County Council members.

But Ulman said he realizes that conditions might change as the council considers the resolution.

There could be a special session of the General Assembly to restructure the plan for imposing the new rates or some court action as a result of a suit filed by Baltimore in the case; or the PSC could reject the county's request if competition begins to develop in the field.

Competition for electricity customers already might be building, according to Robert L. Gould, a spokesman for Constellation Energy Group.

"Competition has not manifested itself because there was no incentive with rates 6.5 percent under 1993 levels," Gould said, referring to the rate freeze imposed when the General Assembly and former Gov. Parris N. Glendening approved electricity deregulation in 1999. With rates scheduled to go to market levels in July, "we are seeing competitors lining up," Gould said.

Christine E. Nizer, a spokeswoman for the PSC, said, "We do have four active suppliers in BGE's area. There are some other companies interested in this marketplace."

An article published Sunday in The Sun identified four companies gearing up or already recruiting customers in the Baltimore area: Washington Gas Energy Services of Herndon, Va.; Commerce Energy of Orange County, Calif.; Pepco Energy of Arlington, Va.; and Ohms Energy Co. of Rosedale.

The council resolution is aimed at a provision of state law that says, "a county or municipal corporation may not act as an aggregator unless the Commission determines there is not sufficient competition within the boundaries of the county or municipal corporation."

Ulman said he is optimistic that the PSC will free the county to act, but he isn't sure how things will stand by the time the resolution is voted on. Still, since large manufacturing plants and restaurants can join energy co-ops, he asked why residents shouldn't have the same right.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who was with Ulman, Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, and Councilmen Guy Guzzone and Calvin Ball, said she has tried to remove the prohibition on residential co-ops by co-sponsoring a change in state law, but, "the industry opposes it and it fails."

Several people Ulman spoke to at the Bain center had a variety of questions.

"Why can't they put in rules about CEOs, so they can't get exorbitant buyouts?" asked Jim Ellis, 67, of Columbia.

Joan Channel, 74, of Columbia said her husband had died recently, placing an extra financial burden on her with the combined effect of higher gasoline prices and the coming electricity increases.

"I can't figure out how they managed to work that out," she said. She'll be watching Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on this issue as the Republican runs for re-election, she said.

"If he doesn't see the light, he's going to see it when the voting occurs," she said.


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