Turn it down, switch it off

Unplugging away as BGE rates kick in


Lynn Shepard is ready to force her six children - ranging in age from 1 to 15 - into labor just to pay for the amount of electricity they waste every day.

It's a joke, but lately, the office manager says, she and her husband have become tyrants about saving energy. They constantly chase after the kids in their five-bedroom home in Aberdeen with an assortment of pleas that sound like a skipping CD player:

Please turn the lights off in empty rooms. Don't leave the video game running if no one's using it. Please shut the TV off if no one's watching. And for Pete's sake, don't keep running in and out of the house. We're not cooling the outdoors.

"I come home and every light is on in the house and [everyone's] all in one room," says Shepard, 31, who confiscates PlayStation and TV privileges when rules are broken. "The kids just roll their eyes at me, but I tell them the bugs and spiders don't need the lights, so turn it off.

"Our energy bill is significantly high now," Shepard says of her $350 monthly energy charges. "What it will be after the rate increase, I don't know, but I am worried about it."

After months of political wrangling and court battles, today marks the first day that electricity rates rise by 15 percent for more than 1 million residential customers in BGE's service region. While the increase is considerably less than the previously projected 72 percent, many consumers have given up hope of lawmakers reversing the deregulation act to save them from climbing electricity bills.

Instead, unassuming homeowners and former power squanderers across the Baltimore region have taken concerns into their own hands and transformed themselves into vigilant Electricity Enforcers.

Whether it's an errant light bulb shining in a vacant room or a dishwasher toiling in the middle of the day during peak hours of demand, these energy czars are quick to point out the error of such thoughtless misuse.

Just take Ray White from Cockeysville.

The 57-year-old hotel owner says he is a complete "maniac" about saving energy at home and at work. In his home, that means lights off, window shades pulled down during the day and the air conditioning thermostat set warmer, even if that means his "dogs have to go dig a hole under some tree shade outside just to keep cool."

At work, White is 10 times worse - out to educate his employees, his guests and anyone willing to listen. White considers it a victorious day if he has turned off six or 10 unused lights at his Holiday Inn in Timonium by the time he leaves at night.

Employees wear Lights Out buttons, a program he started in January to remind everyone to save electricity. Hotel rooms come equipped not with mints on the pillows, but with brochures and door hangers informing guests that housekeepers will turn off TVs and lights when the room is not in use and change bedding and towels only upon request.

White admits that he is obsessed, going so far as to tuck Please Help Me Save Energy fliers with an image of praying hands into employee paychecks.

"I'm a freak," says White, who has spent hundreds of thousands to make his hotel and his home more energy-efficient.

Hotel visitors should not panic; the Holiday Inn is still comfortably cooled and amply lit. White's not that crazy. He won't knock on the door and ask guests to turn off the TV while they're watching, as he might at home. But he is on a mission.

"We can't change the prices; technology can only help save some," White says. "The only way to beat the energy game today is eliminating the use. If I can get all my employees to think about that at work and at home, and even have some hotel guests aware of that, then I feel like I've accomplished something."

White has shaved about $5,000 from his hotel operating expenses every month since he implemented the Lights Out program.

He has also turned his director of operations into a believer.

Roger Least says he has always been "very anal about turning lights out," but recently installed a new, energy-efficient heat pump in his Reisterstown home to replace the 20-year-old model. He has also been pestering his fiancee more about doing her part to conserve.

"She's terrible," says Least, 31, quickly adding, "But she's gotten better, mostly because she doesn't want to hear me complain anymore."

The struggles of shaving dollars off the energy bill might seem futile, but BGE officials say it's better to start now than never.

Until yesterday, residential customers were paying 4.82 cents per kilowatt hour of use. Today, that price goes up to 11.03 cents per kilowatt hour. Customers will get a 4.577-cent per kilowatt credit, but the average summer monthly electric bill for 1,000 kilowatt hours of use still will go from $93.48 in June to $107.50 after today, according to BGE officials.

For the next 11 months, residents will pay 15 percent more for the cost of making that electricity and moving it over high-voltage power lines, says Wayne Harbaugh, manager of pricing and regulatory services for BGE.

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