Simple steps ease jump in BGE bills

July 04, 2007|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,Sun reporter

In preparation for his first electric bill after last month's 50 percent rate increase, Bolton Hill resident and landlord Greg Baranoski harked back to his childhood in the 1960s.

Despite an above-average number of 90-degree days last month, he turned on his air conditioning only twice. Instead, he slept under a ceiling fan and with the windows open. During the day, he closed shutters and curtains to keep out the sun's warming rays. At night, indoor lights - mostly low-wattage bulbs - were dimmed whenever practical.

"It's normal, sensible things to do that I remember doing as a kid in the '60s but haven't done for years," said Baranoski, who designs window displays for independent retailers when he isn't managing the 12 rental units he owns.

Despite all the effort, his latest BGE bill came to $68.90 for his apartment, up nearly 59 percent from the previous month's bill of $43.46.

"I'm using less than ever, and it's the biggest bill I've had in at least the last two years," he said.

Baranoski is among the 1.1 million BGE customers who are just now getting their first bills after the state's largest utility implemented a 50 percent rate increase June 1 as part of the transition to deregulation.

Consumers, who unleashed a barrage of anger at BGE and state lawmakers during last year's debate over electricity rates, seem resigned to the higher costs though they're still unhappy about them. All but 45,000, or about 4 percent, of the utility's customers balked at signing up for an optional, interest-free plan to temporarily defer the full increase until January.

The deadline to sign up for the deferral plan expired Saturday. That means most of the utility's customers elected to start paying the full amount right away and have by now received a bill that reflects at least a partial month's worth of charges at the new rates. For most consumers, the bills they receive this month should include a full billing cycle at the higher rates.

The increase comes a year after rate caps that had been in place for six years expired last summer, leading to a more than 70 percent rise in residential bills. A political outcry stemming from the transition to a deregulated energy market led lawmakers to temporarily limit the increase to 15 percent last summer. But the legislation required residential customers to start paying full market rates this year.

"Clearly, customers have no control over the world energy marketplace, but the one thing that we as customers do have control over is our energy usage," said Rob Gould, a BGE spokesman.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who made the rate increase a major theme of his election campaign but acknowledged this spring that there was little he could do to stop it, announced Monday that the state would lead efforts to cut statewide energy usage by 15 percent by 2015. He revealed a plan to curb energy use by state agencies and office buildings.

The proposal comes as the O'Malley administration and Public Service Commission regulators are studying a variety of methods to limit future rate increases. Options range from implementing some form of re-regulation to promoting energy conservation. O'Malley said yesterday that he plans to hold an energy summit this month.

But any fix could be years off, leaving state residents to find their own ways to cope with higher costs now.

For many, that means adopting low-tech solutions pioneered by their parents and grandparents in a simpler time, when air conditioning was a luxury and the average household had one television, one refrigerator and no computers.

"Most things aren't really as essential as you think they are," said Betsy Dawson, an Annapolis mother of four who counts the kilowatts her family uses every month. Two of her children still live at home.

Dawson started hanging clothes outside to dry after calculating how much laundry she was doing every month. She figures she shaved about $130 to $160 off her monthly utility bill by idling her electric clothes dryer, curbing air conditioning usage and keeping shades drawn during the day, among other things.

Donna Taylor, a Baltimore postal worker and BGE customer, recently started hanging clothes outside and is taking other steps to cut back, such as turning up her thermostat to lower cooling costs.

Taylor also is saving money by holding back her contributions to the Maryland fuel fund, which applies donations to help low-income residents with their bills.

"Unfortunately, instead of them getting an extra check from me to help somebody else, I've got to help myself," she said.

Charles W. Griffin, board president of the Victorine Q. Adams Fuel Fund, said the fund has seen a tripling of residents seeking assistance. O'Malley announced last month that he was adding $5 million to the Electric Universal Service Program - enough to help an additional 3,000 families in need of assistance. But Griffin fears that won't go far enough.

"It's a nice gesture, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem," he said.

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