State regulators considering Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s request for higher rates will hear this week and next from the people least likely to agree: BGE's ratepayers.
So far, though, the volume is hardly deafening: Only one person spoke Monday night at the first of five public hearings about the case.
"This is pretty sad," said Julie Grudzinskas of Annapolis after giving the evening's only testimony. "It's pathetic, actually. But I know why more people aren't here. ... It's daunting."
She means the rate case and its voluminous, complex filings. She spent a lot of time "wading" through BGE documents to try to determine whether the utility needs an increase.
The Maryland Public Service Commission, which is holding the hearings, took testimony from the utility and consumer advocates last month. The panel is expected to rule on the case in February. Any increases would take effect right away.
BGE is asking for higher distribution charges, the portion of the bill — about 30 percent in the case of electric customers — that covers the cost of delivering power to homes and businesses. BGE wants to increase its distribution rate by about $6.62 a month for the typical residential electric customer and about $4.26 a month for the typical residential gas customer.
Businesses also would see increases, though the amounts would vary.
All told, the rate request would raise $175 million in the first 12 months, money that BGE says it needs to fund infrastructure improvements required for reliable service. But customer advocates and commission staff have argued that the utility is asking for too much.
The panel's staff suggested rate increases, but about 40 percent less than BGE requested. The Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers, thinks regulators should shave nearly 70 percent off the amount BGE asked for.
BGE's last rate hike was 21/2 years ago. The commission — approving less than the utility had requested then — cleared the way for distribution rates to rise $1.34 a month for the typical residential electric customer and 85 cents for the typical residential gas customer.
BGE says now that it needs more money to replace aging poles, underground cable and other equipment that play a role in its distribution system. Costs have risen by a third for wooden poles and have more than doubled for electric wire and cable over the past decade, the utility said.
"We fully recognize there is no good time to have a request for an adjustment, but we find ourselves in a situation where we must continue to invest in the system," said Robert L. Gould, a BGE spokesman, before the hearing.
If increases are approved, he said, the silver lining for customers is that energy costs are down sharply compared with three years ago thanks to declining prices for natural gas.
About a dozen people turned out for the Monday hearing in Annapolis, but almost all were either BGE employees or state workers involved with the case in some way. W. Kevin Hughes, incoming chairman of the Public Service Commission, told the sparse crowd that public input "is a very important part" of the rate case — and thanked the one member of the public who showed up to offer some.
Grudzinskas, an electric customer, says a rate increase will affect her more than the average consumer because she uses more power — thanks, in part, to a well and septic system. She praised the commission's staff for offering a counter to BGE's request and told the panel that those recommendations should be "helpful ... for you to consider."
Before the hearing, she flipped through rate-case filings and wondered aloud how customers are expected to make heads or tails of them. Some of the pages are full of redactions, the information marked "confidential," so the public has no way of seeing it, she said.
"I can't say I can render a real opinion [on] whether they deserve any increase or not because the numbers are so vague," she said. But the commission's staff isn't satisfied with the case BGE made for the full increase, she said, and "I agree with them."
BGE rate-case hearings
The Maryland Public Service Commission is holding four more public hearings about Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s request to raise distribution rates this year. Each meeting begins at 7 p.m.:
•Wednesday in the Wohlman Assembly Hall of the War Memorial Building, 101 N. Gay St., Baltimore
•Thursday in the Merrick Lecture Hall at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson
•Tuesday, Jan. 15 at Town Hall Rotunda, 39 Hickory Ave., Bel Air
•Wednesday, Jan. 16 in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City
Each speaker will have five minutes. People can also submit comments in writing — by Jan. 18 — to David J. Collins, executive secretary of the Maryland Public Service Commission, at the William Donald Schaefer Tower, 6 St. Paul Street, 16th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202, with a reference to Case No. 9299. Text BUSINESS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun Business text alerts