Getting Cold In Here: Can't Pay That Power Bill?
Ok, here's fall. Which I love. Except for the moment when I succumb to the pleading of the wee ones in the house and finally turn on the heat.
Which now costs many people nearly as much as their monthly rent. Or, to put it another way, heating your house is now, for most folks, more expensive than owning a car.
So it should come as no surprise that a soaring and very large number of our fellow citizens simply cannot pay the power bill.
I checked in with Pepco, which distributes electricity to 750,000 customers in Maryland and the District, and spokesman Bob Dobkin tells me that 143,000 of those customers are behind in their payments. That's up about three percent from last year, for a startling total of 19 percent of the utility's customers who are either not paying their bill at all or only paying a portion of it. (Most of Pepco's customers heat their homes with natural gas, not electricity, but around the country, gas providers are reporting the same pattern of problems with bill payments.)
Nationwide, utilities report sharp increases in the number of customers whose power they are shutting off for failure to pay. In some very cold states, there's been about a 20 percent increase in shutoffs between last year and this year.
In Virginia, Dominion Power reports that turn-offs are rising from the usual 3.5 percent of accounts to about 4 percent, as power bills soar and customers' ability to pay them droops.
Pepco's shutoffs rate is lower--about 2 percent--but its numbers are also heading upward. About 15,000 customers had their power turned off in the first eight months of 2007, compared to about 16,500 through August of this year, Dobkin says.
In addition, about 8,000 people signed up for low-income assistance in paying their power bills when the D.C. government opened the city's convention center to field such requests last month.
"Utility bills are clearly up and people are hurting," Dobkin says. "We know people are struggling and we work with them." He urges anyone having trouble paying the bill to call and warns that the worst thing you can do is ignore the bill--calling and working out a partial payment plan will keep the juice running. Not paying at all will result in a shut-off, usually after about three notices.
But many people put off the power bill simply because it's one of the bills that can be put off. "You can short your utility bill, but you can't short your food or gasoline bill," Dobkin notes. "Winter brings the highest gas bills and the colder it is, the larger the bill. I suspect that it may be that some customers who short their electric bills will do so because they probably won't have much left after paying what are likely to be some humongous gas bills this winter."
Pepco's rates have gone up by 10.2 percent over last year, he says, which is about average for the country's electricity providers.
If all that isn't depressing enough, try this: The long-range weather forecasts for this part of the world indicate a colder and snowier than average winter, especially at the beginning and end of the season.
There is one good part to these long-range forecasts: A lot more snow than we've seen in recent years, with one particularly well-regarded forecaster, Keith Allen, predicting 25 inches of snow at National and 30 inches at Dulles. Sweet. Meanwhile, stock up on wood.
Today on Raw Fisher Radio: Prince William County board chairman Corey Stewart and former state Sen. Russ Potts debate the plight and future of Virginia's Republican Party--did the GOP miss the boat by failing to hit the social issues hard this fall, or is the party's losing streak growing because it hasn't moved far enough to the center? Can a party in which many believe there's a deep divide between "real Virginia" and "communist country" create a successful statewide appeal? Stewart and Potts go at it on today's show, available for listening or downloading anytime this week at washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio
By Marc Fisher |
October 21, 2008; 8:26 AM ET
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