Kimberlye Ullman had a long list of things to do after buying her Pikesville condo, but one item was a priority — a programmable thermostat.
"It was on my list, even before furniture," she said as technicians from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. connected the equipment recently.
Saving money on energy bills is likely on many minds as temperatures reach sweltering, record highs and power-sucking air conditioners kick into high gear. Electricity prices have been easing after huge increases in recent years, but extreme temperatures drive up consumption and utility bills.
While more high-tech "smart meters" that help consumers track electricity usage may not be available anytime soon because of opposition from state regulators, there are other ways to cut utility bills. Options for conserving energy have proliferated under a statewide initiative designed to reduce both energy consumption and demand during peak hours by 15 percent by 2015.
Among the latest cost-saving devices available under BGE's PeakRewards program are cycling switches that can be installed free of charge on electric water heaters to shut off electricity when rates spike. Air conditioner switches and programmable thermostats also are available under that program.
If you're in the market for a home, about 40 builders have committed to constructing 2,500 homes with better insulation, windows, appliances and light fixtures as part of BGE's new home construction program. The utility put its first energy-efficient model home on the market in Ellicott City this month.
And under energy efficiency programs rolled out this spring, BGE offers rebates for certain appliances and will even pay customers to dispose of old refrigerators or freezers. Consumers replacing light bulbs can pick up discounted compact fluorescent models at participating retailers. And utility customers can take advantage of a quick home energy audit.
Maryland residents are already paying for many of the programs through surcharges on electric bills. The surcharge amounts to about $2 a month for a typical BGE home, but the savings can be much bigger.
The state's five largest utilities each developed their own incentive programs to encourage residential, industrial and commercial ratepayers to cut their energy consumption. The PSC approved the surcharges to pay for the discounts and rebates.
Even if customers don't participate, they still may see lower bills, said Johanna E. Neumann, state director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group. By reducing the demand for energy, Maryland utilities avoid the need to build new power plants — costs that would ultimately be filtered down to consumers, she said.
"You still benefit because of the reduced demand and the reduced need to buy peak capacity and increased reliability in the grid," she said.
BGE also had proposed smart meters as a way to save utility customers by helping them better control energy costs. But the Maryland Public Service Commission, the state's top energy regulator, denied BGE's proposal in a ruling that shocked executives at the utility and threw the entire program into doubt.
The commission, in its order, took issue with customers' shouldering most of the up-front costs to deploy the technology. The plan's estimated cost totaled $835 million, though BGE had secured $200 million in federal stimulus grants to defray the cost. BGE had sought to recover its costs through surcharges and argued that its 1.2 million customers would save $2.6 billion over 15 years.
Consumer advocates objected to the proposal, saying that the new technology was untested and existing programs such as PeakRewards provide a more cost-effective way to cut energy use. Some said the regulatory decision should refocus attention on the existing conservation programs.
"We hope this decision allows them to refocus on energy efficiency and ramp those programs up," said Neumann said.
According to a Maryland PIRG report, the state is not on track to reach its 2011 and 2015 goals because the programs fall short and participation in energy efficiency programs is too low, Neumann said.
Utilities have given more attention to "demand response" programs like PeakRewards that lower the amount of energy used at peak times, like summer afternoons, because it helps them save money, Neumann said. But home energy audits, such as the Home Performance with Energy Star program, offer consumers the most energy savings potential, she said.
Ruth C. Kiselewich, BGE's director of demand side management programs, said that BGE exceeded its residential goals but fell short with commercial and industrial ratepayers, in part because the poor economy makes it difficult for companies to invest in improvements.
The utility also lost time because it expected to start programs at the beginning of 2009, but the programs weren't approved by state regulators until the end of 2008, so most didn't kick off until April.