Efficient-bulb plan has a short circuit

Consumers pay for discount program whether they use low-energy bulbs or not

January 11, 2008|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

.. The intention was good: Maryland power companies would help customers save electricity by providing discounted or free energy-efficient light bulbs.

But consumers have discovered they're paying for the program - whether they use it or not - with a surcharge on every month's utility bills. And only a few stores offer the discount, which means inconvenience - if the consumer bothers to try to find the bulbs at all.

Even the U.S. Postal Service has complained. Post offices in Western Maryland balked when Allegheny Power mailed two compact fluorescent light bulbs to each of its 220,000 Maryland customers - in packages too large for some post offices to handle.

FOR THE RECORD - A text box accompanying an article in yesterday's Sun about utility surcharges paying for energy conservation programs included an incorrect amount for the surcharge levied by Delmarva Power. The correct amount is about 6 cents per month for the typical residential customer.
The Sun regrets the error.

Allegheny ratepayers paid for the bulbs through a mandatory 96 cent monthly surcharge on their bills. Other utilities, including Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., are also tacking a small surcharge onto their customers' bills but working through retailers. BGE uses the money raised to reimburse a handful of retailers, such as Home Depot and Costco, that agree to sell the bulbs at a discount.

"Why should we all pay for a discount we may not be able to use because we can't get there or we may not choose to use?" said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, noting the few participating retailers in the city.

This week, Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat, is drawing up legislation to ban such programs if the cost is going to be passed on to consumers. And Allegheny Power officials will appear before the Public Service Commission Wednesday to respond to complaints about their program, which was approved by the PSC in September.

"It appears the Public Service Commission is in bed with the utilities to the absolute total disregard of the rate payers," Kelly said.

The power companies and consumer advocates say using the swirly compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of the iconic but inefficient incandescent can reduce an energy bill by at least $42 a year, which more than makes up for the surcharges.

Incentives such as these discounts and free bulbs help reduce demand overall, said Johanna E. Neumann, policy advocate for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group: "Even if you don't participate in the [light bulb] program, you still benefit."

The debate mirrors those taking place across the country, where efforts to cut energy usage - some driven by state law - have had unintended consequences. In California, for example, subsidized light bulbs are turning up on eBay as customers cash in on steep discounts offered in that state, said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network in San Francisco.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has challenged the state to reduce energy consumption by 15 percent by 2015. The state Public Service Commission fast-tracked approval of conservation programs funded by surcharges such as Allegheny's last year to get those efforts under way.

"At the end of the day, when people go home and you walk into your house to turn your light on ... you expect your electricity to just be there and to happen for you," said PSC spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards. "Our goal is to make sure that happens for every Marylander 10, 20, 30 years from now."

But Kelly and others say they were unaware that they were financing their own discounts.

Sally Speicher, a 73-year-old resident of Flintstone, received her two bulbs in the mail several weeks ago but can't use them because they don't fit into her ceiling fans. Nor are the 13-watt bulbs they sent - equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent - bright enough for her, she said.

"At the age of 73, they're worthless for me. We need more light," she said. Besides, she added, "I don't believe that other people should spend money for me."

Antoinette Wiseman of LaVale already had several CFLs in her home when she received her bulbs this week - but thought the mailed bulbs were free. "My objection is not having gotten them but to the subterfuge," she said.

Todd Meyers, a spokesman for Allegheny Power, said the materials sent to customers about the light bulbs did not indicate they would be paid for by the surcharge, calling it an oversight. About 350 people have called the company with concerns or complaints.

"That is something that is regrettable," he said.

This was the first time the company tried a program such as this one, he said. It chose to mail bulbs because so many of its customers live in rural areas far from big-box stores. "We're working to learn some lessons from this, and do things differently," he said.

In the Baltimore area, Costco and Home Depot locations reduced the price of individual compact fluorescent bulbs by $1.50 and multi-packs by $3, which BGE reimburses. More than 600,000 of the discounted bulbs have been sold through the Smart Savers program since it began, and it will continue indefinitely, said BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy.

The company also handed out free bulbs at several other locations.

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