Howard gets go-ahead for co-op

State PSC gives county authority to create agency to purchase electricity for residents


Maryland's Public Service Commission gave Howard County the authority yesterday to create a countywide electricity purchasing co-op for residents, which the County Council had requested last month.

The move is largely symbolic for now. Under the rate deal in force, customers pay BGE far less than market rates through the end of next year, and the creation of a Howard purchasing co-op would not be expected until a new county administration takes office in December.

But county officials wanted to have the authority to set up a co-op in case of a spike in rates. To do so, they required a declaration by the PSC that there is a lack of competition on electricity rates in Howard. No other counties have sought such a declaration.

Under state law, governments may not form residential co-ops without that PSC declaration, though business and private groups may.

The Columbia Association, the homeowners group that operates Columbia, for example, is also exploring formation of an energy co-op.

"There will be no bidders because nobody's going to want to bid against this cap," said Tom O'Connor, chairman of the Columbia Association board.

Under the Rate Stabilization Plan approved by the General Assembly, all BGE customers are charged the full 72 percent increase, which will show on their bills. But customers get a credit, lowering the higher amount they pay to about a 15 percent increase. Consumers will also pay BGE for its deferred costs over the next decade, starting in January.

Bethany Gill, a spokeswoman for the state's Public Service Commission, said that if a utility company could be found to sell energy at a lower price, BGE customers still might see a savings on the decade-long reimbursement payments.

"The payback could be slightly less," she said, though under current circumstances "competition may still not develop" until the rates that customers pay reach market level.

Howard County Councilman Ken Ulman, the west Columbia Democrat who introduced the resolution asking for the PSC go-ahead, was eager to claim the credit yesterday.

"I continue to hear from my constituents, especially seniors, how concerned they are about how rate hikes will impact their day-to-day lives. Allowing cooperative buying won't eliminate the increase, but it will certainly lessen it," he said in a statement.

If Ulman's campaign to become Howard County executive is successful, he said, he will begin work on a co-op after the new administration takes office in December.

But the co-op idea doesn't necessarily rest solely on Ulman's election chances.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who is also running for county executive, supported the resolution too, though he was not available for comment yesterday on what he would do if he wins election in November.

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