State energy regulators have launched a review into why Maryland residents are receiving higher-than-usual utility bills this winter.
The Maryland Public Service Commission, which has received a significant increase in customer complaints about big bills, ordered the state's gas and electric companies yesterday to submit information on the reasons for spikes in energy bills, the number of complaints they have received and steps they're taking to investigate and respond to complaints.
Responses are due Feb. 20, and the PSC will hold a hearing Feb. 26.
Yesterday's action expands on the PSC's earlier inquiry into how utilities are assisting customers with overdue accounts and their policies on collection and termination of service to delinquent customers.
"The complaints do not appear to correspond with any rate increases that have been accepted or approved by the Commission in the past several months," the PSC wrote in a notice issued yesterday.
Customers are using more energy because of colder weather, utility officials and advocates say. But many area consumers, who complain that their power bills have jumped by several hundred dollars, are frustrated that their utility costs are climbing while energy prices are falling.
It's a particularly sore point for Maryland residents paying 85 percent more for electricity than they were before deregulation was passed in 1999.
Besides Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., the state's largest utility with 1.2 million customers, Maryland has numerous gas and electric companies that serve residential customers, including Pepco, Allegheny Power and Eastern Shore Gas Co.
Pepco, with 518,000 Maryland electric customers, said it has received more calls from customers about higher bills for December and January.
"We do believe that for the most part it's a matter of usage," said Clay Anderson, a spokesman for Pepco. "You're going to have an increase ... with colder temperatures."
Mark Case, BGE's senior vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs, agreed. He said the "majority of concerns about higher bills is due to the fact that customers are using more this winter."
Case said usage usually doubles when temperatures drop below 30 degrees, and there were twice as many days with such extreme cold so far this winter compared with a year ago.
Another factor is the purchase of electricity and natural gas when energy prices were higher, according to the utilities.
About 1 percent of BGE customers have inquired about their higher bills this winter, a small uptick from the previous year, Case said.
Consumer advocate Paula Carmody, of the Office of the People's Counsel, said the office has received inquiries about high bills, but most complaints go to the PSC, which didn't offer specific figures yesterday.
Rates haven't suddenly changed. Increases took effect June 1 and continue through May 31, she said.
Kristopher Courter, 32, said utility bills for his 1,500-square-foot house have spiked this winter, even though he has tried to conserve.
Courter installed fluorescent light bulbs after his bill jumped from $150 to $240 in December. Then, the Orchard Beach resident turned down the furnace by 4 degrees. But his current bill was higher: $300.
"It just feels like something isn't right," he said. "I'm all for paying for what I use, but it's just really frustrating."