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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

By Marc Fisher |  October 21, 2008; 8:26 AM ET
Previous: Chevy Chase DC Rejects Historic Status | Next: Hydrant's Broken, But You Can See It On A Cool Map


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Snow provides good insulation. Bring it on.

Posted by: Ho Ho Ho | October 21, 2008 8:37 AM

Good story, except for this line:

"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."

What IS depressing is you find merit in the so called 'long term' weather forecast. Try auditing their accuracy. Such predictions are USELESS.

Posted by: Weather | October 21, 2008 9:26 AM

10.2% increase is way too high. Incomes are going up around 3% per year. Not right. People should take advantage of aidpages though. There are companies and gov't aid that you can get, including help with heating and electric bill, mortgage, and others. I found info at Does anyone else have any good sites/resources? Thanks

Posted by: John | October 21, 2008 9:39 AM

Good thing we have global warming or "a colder and snowier than average winter" would be much worse. Maybe they could use the budget plan that spreads the costs over the year.

Posted by: Stick | October 21, 2008 9:56 AM

Broke down last night and used my furnace for the first time since March. Didn't turn the AC on all summer either or use the dryer (and I am a very busy full-time worker). The reason - I know that my electricity comes from mountain top coal removal, a heinous process that destroys mountains and water quality for a quick onetime gain.

I feel for people who are struggling, but wonder how much thought they gave to the amount of power their lifestyles (large single family houses?) would require, both in terms of their budgets, and how we leave the land for future generations. Personally, I don't think electricity costs enough to cover the externalities.

Posted by: LB | October 21, 2008 9:59 AM

While we clamor for lower energy costs, there are things we can do to more efficiently heat our homes, some of them quite simple.

Buying or sewing insulated roman shades and hanging them in rooms where you spend a lot of time really can help stop heat from escaping. There are great instructions in Singer's "Sewing for the Home" book.

Posted by: azalea | October 21, 2008 10:01 AM

No sunspots means cold winters.

Posted by: katman | October 21, 2008 10:15 AM

Bush/Palin signs make a fine fires starter.

Posted by: Cranky | October 21, 2008 10:47 AM

Coal prices go up, power bills go up, shut-off rates go up. Time to change our dirty, expensive energy system, don't you think?

Posted by: TheGreenMiles | October 21, 2008 11:05 AM

Nice try Cranky. Bush/Palin signs don't exist. Typical rocket scientist Obama backer.

Want an example? Obama ad says McCain is giving zero $ tax cut to middle class. Same ad says Obama will give three times tax cut to the middle class as McCain. Anybody want to guess how much three times zero is? And yet, people like Cranky fall for that crap.

Marc: I'm not too sure that Mr. "Buy a Carbon Offset" Gore would approve of the wood burning option.

I converted my fireplace to gas logs with a thermostat. Ceiling fans in every room. Replaced the windows with double panes and upped the attic to R60 with extra insulation.

I heat a 3500 sq ft split foyer house on 100 lbs of gas and 250 gallons of oil per winter.

Posted by: DC Voter | October 21, 2008 11:07 AM

You know, I feel for people who can't afford to keep themselves warm. I can, but I did it through a lot of denial.

No, we will not turn on the a/c and keep the house/apartment below 78 degrees.

No, I will not turn on the heat until you've exhausted all other possibilities (wear socks to bed, put on pajamas, grab an extra comforter, snuggle a cat, let's seal the windows with the Frost-King plastic).

BG&E rates have gone up higher and faster than Pepco, I think.

It may not be your ideal, but it's practical.

And yeah, I donate to the fund to help those who are really in dire straits. Because sometimes, life simply hits you long and hard in the head, despite your best efforts.

Posted by: Eldersburg | October 21, 2008 12:36 PM

this is just a sad testament to where we are as a country. I make a nice salary and frankly i can't afford my utility bills now. the Pepco increase was a stated 70% increase that has been the equivalent of over 100%. my bills have more than doubled.

Posted by: RobGreg | October 21, 2008 1:08 PM

How much is the electricity rate with Pepco?

BG&E costs me 11.804 cents/KwH

Posted by: Eldersburg | October 21, 2008 1:27 PM

Found it. 0.11391/kwH

Posted by: Anonymous | October 21, 2008 1:33 PM

"how much thought they gave to the amount of power their lifestyles (large single family houses?) would require"?

In their budgets: None.

How it would leave the land: Even less.

Posted by: Stick | October 21, 2008 3:31 PM

How many people who have trouble paying their heating bills have cable TV or broadband? You need to set priorities before looking for handouts people!

Posted by: bnichols | October 21, 2008 4:17 PM

How many people who have trouble paying their heating bills have cable TV or broadband? You need to set priorities before looking for handouts people!

Posted by: bnichols | October 21, 2008 4:17 PM

I think that is accounted for when people do seek relief with their utility bills. I don't know this first-hand (I'm too cheap to pay for television service), but a friend of mine had to apply once. She mentioned that it was pretty intensive, as it should be.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 21, 2008 4:45 PM

Let's deregulate the utilities!
Oh - we already did that.
Well - good luck!!!

Posted by: Freddie Mick | October 21, 2008 8:53 PM

One way to keep warm is in Obama pajamas. No kidding,

Posted by: Ojamas | October 22, 2008 5:17 AM

When we bought our all-electric home eight years ago, one of the smartest purchases we made was to get a heat pump. It has cut our electric bill in half, and we're nice and warm. Yes, the air feels cool when it comes out of the vent, but that's because it's 90 degrees and body temperature is 98.6. So it feels cool, even though 90 degree heat will soon warm a room nicely. I recommend them highly.

Posted by: wanderer | October 22, 2008 5:10 PM

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