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Energy-saving plan angers BGE customers as AC goes out

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Baltimore Gas and Electric stood by its PeakRewards program Saturday, even as participating customers' tempers continued to flare after thousands of air conditioning units were turned off for hours as part of the energy-saving program during the intense heat of the day before.

The extreme heat triggered the first "emergency event" in the four-year history of the program, and the effects were different from what customers had come to expect — many wondered why they couldn't override the shutdown. Without air conditioning for up to 10 hours, many customers' homes reached 90 degrees and higher. In the past, air conditioning has only been turned off for a few hours at a time.

Customers had trouble getting through to BGE's customer service line and were confused when online records said that the air conditioning had been turned back on, even though it had not.

About 1,700 of the 350,000 people enrolled in the program have dropped out or reduced their enrollment level, said BGE executive Mark D. Case, who is in charge of PeakRewards. The situation on Friday was unique, he said, because PJM Interconnection, the regional electricity grid operator, called for the long period of "cycling" — turning off select appliances for periods of time.

The communication problems were caused by overburdened call centers and an overloaded cellular network, Case said. The company's radio signals used to remotely control cooling units were jammed from the high volume of requests earlier in the day to turn units back on, he said, and the company is working to improve call center availability and radio signal transmission.

Power needs to be restored gradually, said BGE spokesman Rob Gould, which also caused some customers to experience a delay in having their cooling reactivated.

Case said the company may begin allowing emergency overrides for all users. When PJM declares an emergency, only people with health-related concerns can request an override. In non-emergency situations, any enrollee can request that their cooling units be turned back on if it gets too hot in their home.

BGE is also trying to avoid using the system for the next week, despite the heat, he said.

Customers complained en masse Friday — on social networking sites, over the phone and by email — about the company's energy-saving program. Many people thought that the program was misrepresented in promotional materials.

"I felt they really took advantage of customers who signed up for this plan. Nobody ever had any idea — me for one — that they could really shut down our cooling for an entire day," said Lisa Larcher, a 47-year-old mother who lives in Gambrills with her husband, two daughters and two cats. "It could have been dangerous."

Some customers, searching for any information about the extended outage, checked their PeakRewards accounts online Friday night and found records indicating that their cooling systems had already been returned to service, even as they saw from the thermostat on the wall that air was not circulating.

Jeff Andrade of Odenton said his cycling on Friday was "double the outage of any previous cycle." Although the end time he saw online was 6:46 p.m., his air conditioning did not start up until 8 p.m.

BGE spokeswoman Linda J. Foy said the company is investigating records discrepancies, but she denied that there were problems with PeakRewards.

The program is meant to save energy and money by allowing BGE to turn off certain heating and air conditioning units for brief periods when demand is the highest. Most participants are in Baltimore County — roughly a third — followed by Anne Arundel, according to the company's website.

In return, customers get cash credits on their bills: $50, $75 or $100 each year depending upon the percentage of time they agree to give up control. The amounts are doubled during the first year of participation. The grid operator, PJM, pays BGE for reducing electricity use during peak times,Case said, and 100 percent of that money is passed onto customers through credits.

Larcher's air conditioning was off for nearly six hours Friday, and the temperature in her upstairs level had topped 90 degrees, when she said she'd had enough, calling BGE to drop out of the program that evening.

"It was scary," she said, "not being able to control your environment." By Saturday, she vowed to never go back.

Westminster resident Christopher Miccio, whose air was off for nearly nine hours Friday, said that a customer service phone operator at BGE represented to him prior to enrolling in the program that normally cooling is only turned off for several hours, about 4, in the midafternoon. After Friday, however, he went to look at the company's written materials online and found a "very different," less specific, characterization of the PeakRewards program.

Case said that it is possible that phone customer service representatives may had said that the cycling is normally only a few hours, but that the written materials are not as limiting.

BGE officials Case and Foy said that all of their promotional materials written so as not to be too precise in its presentation of how the program operates because the company cannot predict how weather is going to affect electricity demands. Instead, the PeakRewards materials rely on "generalizations," Foy said, describing "typical" cycling events.

"We have represented the program fairly," Case said. "For example, we describe in detail 'What does cycling mean? What does 50 percent mean? What does 100 percent mean?' We explain the difference between and emergency event and a non-emergency event."

The Maryland Public Service Commission received a handful of complaints about the length of BGE's air conditioner cycling on Friday, said spokeswoman Regina L. Davis, but regulatory panel did not believe the utility had done anything wrong. The commission will address the complaints it received, she said, and will continue to monitor how the program is working.

"It's a voluntary program," she said. "Everything is spelled out in the agreement."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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