Heat puts many in sweat over energy cost

The Baltimore Sun

A blast of warm southern air sent temperatures soaring into the 90s throughout Maryland yesterday, increasing the demand for power and sending residents scurrying to cooler indoor locations.

Forcasters expected relief today as a low-pressure system arrives from the Great Lakes and drops temperatures into the mid-80s.

The brief heat wave reminded many Baltimoreans that they're now paying up to 70 percent more for electricity than they were before state-imposed rate caps expired last summer.

"Well, now that they've hiked up the price, you have to watch it," said Allison Casalena, 20, who was biking downtown yesterday from her Mount Vernon apartment. "When we're not there, we turn off the lights, turn off the AC."

The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory lasting until 8 p.m. yesterday for Central Maryland, the Washington area and points as far south as Charlottesville, Va., warning people to stay indoors if possible.

Baltimore health officials issued their own Code Red heat advisory and opened shelters in several neighborhoods so residents without air conditioning could escape the heat.

The temperature and humidity were the result of a warm air mass from the south, combined with clear skies that allowed the sun to beat down on Maryland throughout much of the day, according to Steven Zubrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where long-term temperature records are kept, the daytime high of 94 fell 3 degrees short of the record 97 set in 1999. The normal high for yesterday's date is 81 degrees, the weather service said.

But if it felt warmer than that in many places yesterday, it was for good reason: It was hotter.

The temperature reached 96 by 4 p.m. at the Maryland Science Center. That combined with the humidity to produce a heat index -- a measure of how hot the air feels -- of more than 102 at the Inner Harbor site.

"That's very warm," Zubrick said.

No one had to tell that to Warren Greenberg, 40, of Belair-Edison, who was waiting for the No. 15 bus outside City Hall yesterday.

Greenberg said that when he reached home, he would skip the air conditioning and set two fans on high. "I try to keep the house dark during the daytime because I hate to give BGE any more money," he said.

Earl Taylor, 56, who was waiting for a bus at the same stop after a downtown shopping trip, espoused a reverse philosophy for cooling the East Baltimore home he shares with his cousin and her husband. "I keep the air conditioning on, so when I get in the house, it's nice and cold," Taylor said.

It was the first really hot day since June 1, when a 50 percent rate increase took effect for BGE residential customers. BGE customers are now paying 70 percent more for their electricity than they were before state-imposed rate caps expired last summer.

"There's no doubt about it. Rates have gone up 50 percent, and the bottom line is people are going to have higher bills," said Maryland People's Counsel Paula M. Carmody, who represents consumers before the state Public Service Commission.

The BGE rate increase seemed to be on everyone's minds.

For the past two summers, the electricity bill at James Kim's restaurant on North Calvert Street -- Deli Express -- has totaled about $900 per month. This year, he's expecting it to exceed $1,000. Still, the air conditioning was running yesterday.

"Everywhere there are restaurants, the electric bills, you spend a lot of money," Kim, 61, said. "We have to turn on the AC for the customers."

William White, 59, from Rosedale, doesn't plan on changing his home air-conditioning use, despite the increasing cost. "I just bought a new Mitsubishi." White said. "It's a home AC. On a day like today, the way my Mitsubishi's set up. I set it on 9, and it's nice.

"If they would have raised it a couple of cents every year, we would have never known the difference," he added.

David Garrett, a retired Navy engineer from Northwood, was giving his neighbor a ride to pay her water bill. The air conditioning in his car wasn't working so he compensated: windows down and three bottles of ice water.

"There's not too much you can do with the BGE bills, the gas prices; you got to adjust to it," Garrett said. "You got to adjust to it because the government ain't doing too much about it. They talk about it a lot in the paper, but they're not doing anything."

BGE expected its 1.1 million customers to use about 6,000 megawatts of power during yesterday's peak, about 7 percent more than the 5,600-megawatt peak on a typical summer day, said Linda Foy, a utility spokeswoman. That figure fell far short of the all-time peak of 7,200 megawatts reached last August, Foy said.

About 15,000 BGE customers in West Baltimore, Southwest Baltimore and part of Catonsville lost power yesterday about 11 a.m., Foy said. Service was being restored late yesterday, and utility officials weren't sure what caused the outage.

S. Penick, 70, who lives in Edmondson Village, was among the unlucky customers who lost power in the morning and got it back at 4 p.m. She opened her windows to cool herself, but the heat was oppressive.

"We're over here suffering and stifling in the heat," Penick said. "You get a little tired of that. The electricity just went up 50 percent -- why would they let this happen? My husband's 84 years old. We had to survive some kind of way. We were in ... dire need."

St. Agnes Hospital also lost power briefly, but spokesman John Welby said the hospital's emergency power supply kicked in and normal operations continued.

PJM Interconnection, which oversees the power supply to the District of Columbia, Maryland and 12 other states, said peak demand yesterday reached 119,000 megawatts, about 10 percent more than Thursday's peak.

"It's early in the month for that much usage, but it's not unheard of," said Ray Dotter, a PJM spokesman.

Experts say that by using energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment, keeping it well-maintained, sealing all ducts and taking other precautions, consumers can save as much as 20 percent on energy costs.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

For more energy-saving tips: www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=news.nr_s pring2007_v2

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