COLUMBIA, SC — This frigid January isn’t just freezing your toes, it could cast a cold chill over your bank account, too.
Extreme weather typically means higher electric bills. But S.C. Electric & Gas customers are about to get hit with a double whammy. An extended cold snap coupled with the end of a program designed to level out bills throughout the year promises to cause sticker shock for some consumers.
SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said he could not say how much more the average customer’s bill will be this month, compared to last January, because the last complete billing cycle was before Christmas.
However, the impact of higher power use due to the cold could be doubly felt because of the end of an Electric Weather Normalization Adjustment program that the Cayce-based utility giant introduced in summer of 2010.
“The whole idea behind that was to take some of the weather-driven peaks out of customers’ bills,” Boomhower said. For example, the spike in customers’ bills during extreme weather would be softened, but they would get less of a break on bills during mild weather.
However, calculating bills under the program was so complicated that consumers complained there was no way to know if they were being treated fairly. In November, consumers asked the S.C. Public Service Commission to end the program. SCE&G signed on later that month, and the program ended in December.
Unusually cold weather has plagued the Midlands in January, and bills typically rise as people turn up their thermostats. Without a program in place to soften the blow, bills going out this month could be the highest customers have seen since the extreme cold snap in early 2010. That cold snap prompted development of the weather normalization program in the first place.
On the flip side, during the next mild stretch, customers could see lower bills than they have since the program began.
“Roughly 50 percent of your power usage can be tied to your heating and cooling system,” Boomhower said. “So when you have extreme temperatures …you tend to see your highest power bills.”
So far, the company – which serves 675,000 electric customers in South Carolina – has not had an increased level of complaints from customers, he said. But the 10-day weather forecast is for continued cold so customers likely haven’t seen their highest bills yet.
“We’ve really been trying to drive home … the importance of conservation,” Boomhower said. “There’s always a benefit to conserving and making sure you have energy-efficient appliances, adequate insulation, caulking around older windows.”
The company also agreed as part of its settlement to end the weather normalization program to advertise a separate “budget billing” program to consumers, according to Dukes Scott, executive director of the Office of Regulatory Staff.
“The budget billing is the way to level it out without (weather normalization),” Scott said.
That program allows customers to pay the same amount each month for budgeting purposes, based on average use the previous year. The average bill amount is adjusted each year – or could be adjusted sometime during the year – to reflect increases or decreases in use.
“It doesn’t change what you ultimately pay,” Scott said.
By the Numbers:
$142.29 - Cost per 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity from S.C. Electric & Gas.
101,118 - Total kilowatt hours used by SCE&G customers Jan. 7, when the temperature dipped to 13 in Columbia. It was an all-time record for energy use from the utility.
17 degrees - Forecasted low for next Wednesday. Lows are expected to remain mainly in the 20s and 30s until Feb. 2
SOURCES: S.C. Electric & Gas and weather.com