Help for energy hogs

January 29, 2007

Can't bring yourself to turn off that air conditioner on steamy summer afternoons even though that little voice of conscience says a cool iced tea on the screened porch would better serve your budget and the planet?

Put aside that guilt; your energy company may be coming to the rescue.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which serves most of this region, wants to equip its residential customers with "smart" thermostats remotely controlled to cycle air conditioners and electric heaters off and on during peak-use hours and with "smart meters" to help customers more efficiently manage power use on their own.

If successful, the new program could lower energy prices for all customers by reducing demand spikes for power when it is most expensive to buy. Curbing demand could also reduce carbon emissions that spew from BGE's coal-powered utility plants, and postpone the need for additional plants.

Lots of research should be conducted, however, before the Public Service Commission grants approval even for a pilot program, during which the new devices would be tested in the homes of 5,000 customers. High on the list of questions to be answered is whether the customer-borne cost of installing the high-tech equipment would save enough in energy use to be justified.

Paula M. Carmody, the newly named people's counsel, who represents consumers on issues before the PSC, correctly observes that the company's timetable of winning regulatory approval within a few months is unrealistic.

Maryland imports nearly 30 percent of its power from out of state, so the utility is eager to save as much as it can by avoiding peak-use buying. Yet so much remains unsettled about the regulatory structure of Maryland's energy market in the wake of last year's fracas with the General Assembly over rapidly rising rates that no sweeping changes should be made until that dust clears.

In general, though, encouraging Marylanders to be smart energy consumers is a good idea. If sweeteners in the form of credits and rate breaks make the job easier, so much the better. For all the talk of broad government programs to address global warming, an enormous contribution can also be made by individuals acting on their own.

Turn off that water heater in the summer except for the few minutes you need it. Give the air conditioner a break just when you know everyone else has his on. A tall cold one on the back porch can do wonders if you're saving money at the same time.

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