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Utility Rates, Regulation Top Consumer Issues

Jerome Ross used to pay a couple of hundred dollars each month for electricity. Now, his monthly bill is closer to $500 or $550.
   
It's gotten out of hand, like everything else in this country financially," said Ross, 74, an ophthalmologist in Baltimore.

"Everybody's trying to squeeze the last drop out," he said. "When it was a regulated utility it was much better."
   
Utility regulation will be one of the top consumer issues facing the legislature when it convenes Jan. 12. For the second year in a row, Gov. Martin O' Malley, D, will ask the General Assembly to re-regulate electricity markets after a decade of deregulation.

"The promise of deregulation — that the free market would drive energy prices down through competition — has failed the people of Maryland," said Malcolm Woolf director of the Maryland Energy Administration, which advises the governor on energy policy.

In another development, Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) and Pepco have asked the Maryland Public Service Commission to approve plans to install "smart meters" in customers' homes. These meters track when energy is used, allowing utilities to charge more for energy consumed during high-demand times of the day.

The utilities say that would encourage energy conservation and lower overall energy bills.

The federal government recently awarded $200 million to BGE and $109 million to Pepco to update their infrastructure for smart meters and to reduce the cost of the meters to the customers.

BGE President Kenneth DeFontes predicted the use of smart meters "would improve system reliability and, most importantly, help customers conserve energy and lower their energy bills" by reducing peak demand.

But Hank Greenberg, AARP Maryland associate state director for advocacy, said the utilities haven't demonstrated that the upgraded equipment will lower energy costs and outweigh the costs passed along to consumers.

Other states have moved to time-based pricing on a voluntary basis — rather than requiring all customers to upgrade and pay for the advanced system.

 "We want proof that utility bills would be lower," Greenberg said. If you're using medical equipment, you don't have a choice about what time to use it. People who work at night, and other constituencies, might have concerns about time-of-use pricing."

Other consumer issues of interest in Maryland in 2010 include:

  • Adequate funding of senior services. The state cut money for adult respite care by 50 percent in 2009. Greenberg noted that the over-60 segment of the population and its demand for services is increasing, "so even flat funding is a decrease."

  • A uniform power-of-attorney act. Currently, there's no single form allowing someone to act on another's behalf accepted at all banks, insurance companies or other institutions in the state.

  • Funding the recent expansion of Medicaid to more uninsured people.

  • Developing a corps of pharmaceutical advisors to provide doctors with impartial information about prescription drugs.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a freelance writer living in Bethesda, Md.

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