"That's the million-dollar question," she said. "I'm going to leave it to God — that's all I can do."
Loss of power makes a home all but uninhabitable, though Maryland Legal Aid said it has impoverished clients who've gone for months without it, staying with friends on particularly cold nights. A shut-off also puts renters in danger of eviction — and losing their Section 8 voucher if they have the subsidy.
"From our point of view, it would be really most helpful all the way around to try to develop a more systematic approach to bill affordability," said Paula Carmody, head of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers.
Her office supports an approach she thinks would improve upon Maryland's current "patchwork" efforts to help customers. But the idea is languishing.
The state's utility regulator, the Maryland Public Service Commission, launched a review of energy assistance programs two years ago to "consider alternatives to the seemingly untenable status quo." The agency's staff, working with Carmody's office, proposed a plan to cap utility payments for customers of modest means so those bills don't eat up more than a certain amount of income — perhaps 6 percent.
Six states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, have percentage-of-income programs for customers of at least some utilities, the National Consumer Law Center says.
Maryland regulators held a hearing on the proposal a year ago. There's been no movement since.
"That needs to come off the shelf," said the Fuel Fund's Vanni. "I think that's the only way we're going to get something done, just to make energy more affordable for people."
The stumbling block might be the expense. Regulators' staff estimated the proposal could cost an additional $213 million over what ratepayers currently contribute for utility-bill assistance. That would increase the charge to residential customers from 37 cents a month to more than $8, unless the difference was split with businesses.
A group of major power users said no thanks to the idea of sharing that cost. And BGE raised concerns about the impact on customers who wouldn't receive the help.
"BGE urges that serious consideration be given to developing a limited pilot program to determine both the costs and potential benefits of the program," the company said in its written comments.
Carmody said the cost estimate is likely "way, way high" because it doesn't account for savings that would come if utilities reduce collections efforts and write off fewer bad debts — expenses passed on to all ratepayers. Regulators could handle the proposal as a jumping-off point, she noted.
"We'd like them to simply say, 'This looks promising, we're interested, there are obviously a number of issues, but we're directing utilities and asking a number of stakeholders to develop it further and see whether this makes sense,' " she said.
This year, the Public Service Commission focused on winter bill spikes instead, asking utilities to increase their efforts to work with customers in financial distress.
Carol Dodson, BGE's chief customer officer, said the company's steps included frequent energy-assistance events and extending to 18 months the amount of time consumers could spread out repayment of past-due amounts.
Termination, she said, "is our last resort."
"We try to work with our customers individually," Dodson said. "We want to help them be successful in paying their bills."
In February, amid the sharp cold and spiking costs, Maryland officials announced they would apply $20 million in additional utility assistance to the bills of low-income families who applied for the Electric Universal Service Program — an average of about $175 in help apiece.
Many Marylanders were already in trouble. In BGE's territory alone, more than 230,000 customers were behind that month. Nearly as many had past-due amounts in March.
Some overdue bills resulted in turn-offs during the winter, but relatively few. State law bars shut-offs on days when the 72-hour forecast calls for freezing conditions.