Consumer advocates call for review of BGE program

As consumer advocates called for a review of BGE's PeakRewards program, the utility said Monday that more than 3,800 customers have dropped or modified their participation after seeing air conditioners cycled off for hours Friday — the hottest day in 75 years.

Advocates for seniors and consumers, while praising the program's goals, said they and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. must do a better job counseling customers who sign up for the voluntary program.

Hank Greenberg, state director of AARP Maryland, said PeakRewards is a good program, but "these last few days showed there's a need for some review and some better communication. … You may have signed up three years ago and not even remember."

BGE officials acknowledged Monday that the program, which eases energy consumption when demand spikes, encountered problems Friday, including jammed radio signals and overwhelmed customer service phone lines. The utility received 41,000 phone calls from Friday through 10 a.m. Monday, the company said.

"With no experience with PeakRewards cycling, we didn't realize we should have gone into what we call 'storm mode,'" taking only calls about outages and PeakRewards, said Jeannette M. Mills, chief customer officer for BGE. Callers with questions about the program also took longer to process than routine outage reports, she said.

After the problems Friday — when Baltimore's temperature hit 108 — BGE officials plan to review the program to see what improvements can be made. They may use technology to send automated phone messages to consumers and try to put more information on the company website, Mills said.

BGE will remove any customer from the program immediately if they are dissatisfied, even during an emergency event, said Mark D. Case, senior vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs. But the company won't allow customers to sign up again later and continue receiving credits on their bills. "We don't want to encourage gaming of the system," he said.

Customers receive bill credits in return for allowing BGE to cycle off some or all air conditioning when overall power demands are high. Since the program started, participating customers have received $22 million in credits, Case said.

Of the approximately 450,000 BGE customers enrolled in the program, 2,500 have dropped out since last week and an additional 1,300 have reduced their level of cycling, Case said. The company plans to send letters to all those who are enrolled to ask whether they want to continue to participate at their current cycling levels.

"We're going to proactively remind customers what they signed up for and whether they wish to continue," Case said. "At the end of the day, we want customers to be satisfied with this program."

Only about 20 percent of PeakRewards customers are signed up for 100 percent cycling, Case said.

Carolynn and Richard Geer are among them. Their thermostat's peak reading on Friday reached 99 degrees after having their air conditioning turned off for nine hours.

Carolynn Geer, 62, and her 79-year-old husband, both retired and on Social Security, also run small businesses out of their Phoenix home and spent the entire day sweltering in the ever-rising temperatures.

"We don't go to an office where there's air conditioning," she said. "We were sick … we almost got physically sick from the heat."

She said they spent the entire day in the basement. It was cool at first but by the end of the day, "even the basement was too hot."

When she signed up for the program about six months ago, she thought the air conditioning would just turn off and on for a few hours at a time. "I didn't realize that they could totally shut our air off for that amount of time," she said.

Still, she wants more information about the program before they opt out. "We can't go through this again," she said. "I can't risk it."

State utility regulators said they constantly monitor progress of programs like PeakRewards and are reviewing the complaints about the program, but fewer than a dozen were received as of Friday afternoon. Additional complaints came in over the weekend and were being tabulated.

"Last week's heat wave has been the first real test of those programs, and there, undoubtedly, are lessons that we and the companies will learn from this test," said PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian in a statement.

But it's premature to say whether the program did or did not work as planned, or whether changes are needed, he said.

BGE officials have said the radio signals used to signal compressors to turn back on were jammed because of all the earlier requests to override the shut-offs, which extended the outage for some customers well past when the emergency ended at 5:40 p.m. At that point, BGE resumed AC cycling at 50 percent.

BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy added that the company had focused outreach to new customers, rather than those who signed up several years ago.

The company pledged Sunday not to initiate PeakRewards systemwide through July 30, barring equipment or weather emergencies.

Only customers experiencing a medical emergency were permitted to override their cycling settings on Friday. Ratepayers with special needs — those who rely on medical equipment, for example — should alert the utility, but they need to be certified by a physician.

But the program may not be a good option for seniors, those with small children or health conditions, or others who are home in the daytime or are uncomfortable in the heat, said Paula Carmody of the Office of the People's Counsel.

"These programs work well on a voluntary basis, particularly if your household is one where household members are not home during the week," she said.

This was the first time since PeakRewards started that regional electricity grid operator PJM Interconnection declared an emergency event for BGE. In the past, BGE has initiated cycling to cut consumption during peak demand periods but never cycled more than 50 percent, even for customers who had signed up for higher levels.

PJM makes its assessment based on the load on the system, and made the call Friday given the combination of high temperatures and a major substation failure in Baltimore County early Friday morning.

The utility initiated the emergency cycling at 11:30 a.m. Although BGE is building the systems to call all of its 1.2 million customers within a three-hour span as part of its smart-meter program, that capability won't be ready until the end of 2012, Case said.

If PJM hadn't directed BGE to take action, there was the risk of rolling blackouts and brownouts, Case said. And once blackouts started, they would have triggered equipment failures, which would have required much more time to restore power.

Some customers contacted Baltimore Sun reporters and expressed surprise that other ratepayers were unaware that they had allowed BGE to shut off their air conditioning — although they had collected the credits, up to $25 per warm-weather month for 100 percent cycling.

Other customers have vowed to leave the program.

Sally Harris, 59, said she arrived at her Elkridge home to find her thermostat at 93 degrees at 6 p.m. Friday, and had to rush her Pomeranian to a vet for treatment.

"I thought he was dying … it was very scary," Harris said.

She said that she signed up for the program because of the bill credits and, before Friday, had not experienced any problems.

Now Harris plans to cancel, however. "It's not worth my dog's, or anybody else's, health and safety," she said.