Sky-High Utility Bills Hit Washington Families

Maryland regulators probe rates after consumer complaints

High utility bills are hitting Washington-area families hard this winter.

At a hearing in Baltimore Thursday, Maryland state utility regulators, who have been flooded with consumer complaints, grilled representatives from several utility companies about the spike in rates.

“It’s not obvious to us why people’s bills should double,” Maryland Public Service Commission chairman Douglas Nazarian said to representatives from Pepco, Washington Gas, and BG&E.

The Horace family of Temple Hills, Md., is among the households feeling the pinch.

“Shock and awe” is how Rebecca Horace describes her utility bills, which have nearly doubled since last winter.

If anything, Rebecca said, her family has been conserving more than ever. She says they keep the thermostat around 67 degrees, while remaining especially vigilant about turning off the lights after her children go to bed.

Despite the efforts, their bill was about $730 this January, compared to the $316 bill they received in January 2008.

“It definitely made us have to cut back on a lot of things,” said Rebecca’s husband, Brian Horace.

The utility companies have offered up several explanations for the sky-high rates.

For one, they say, we’ve had a colder winter. Electric heating systems are often less efficient in especially frigid weather.

“We’ve had more days in the teens than previous Januaries, and once the outside temperature gets below a certain temperature, your heat pump is not going to be very effective,” said Charles Dickerson, vice president of customer care for Pepco.

Other culprits include higher commodity costs and longer billing periods.

Rebecca Horace said she’s not convinced.

“They’re telling us it’s either our fault or the cold weather,” she said. “I don’t think so.”

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