Community shocked as electric bills soar past $400

Timothy Sluss, 24, of Strasburg, holds his latest electric bill from Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative that was over $400. Many area residents are seeing higher electric bills due to the recent cold snap. Rich Cooley/Daily

When Timothy Sluss, 24, of Strasburg, saw that his electric bill for the month of November had nearly doubled from the previous month, he wasn’t too surprised. It was getting colder, and his twin brother had recently moved into his basement.

But when the next month’s bill rolled around and it had doubled again, Sluss was nonplussed. Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative was asking for $431.86.

“I was shocked,” Sluss said. “I wanted to blame my brother. I’m like, ‘What in the heck did you use?'”

During that billing period, Sluss had one heat pump running in his 1,344-square-foot house and his brother, in the basement, ran two space heaters. They kept the thermostat at 69 degrees amid one of the area’s longest cold snaps in recent history.

“I talked to my mom about it, and she said, ‘Well, why don’t you talk to the neighbors and see what their bills were?'” Sluss said. So he made a post on the “What’s Happening Strasburg?” Facebook page asking just that, and was “surprised when close to 100 people responded, saying their bills have doubled.”

One responder, Joan Corman, 63, lives in Fort Valley. She told the Northern Virginia Daily that her most recent energy bill from Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative came to $481.

Charles Ammons, 31, of Strasburg, said his SVEC bill was $394, twice what he and his wife typically budget for power.

Others saw humor in the situation. One resident posted a meme on the Facebook page with the text: “Received my electricity bill today… Didn’t realize I was trying to buy the company.

It’s normal for electric bills to rise in the winter, said Dominion Energy media relations manager Charles Penn. He said that the company recently issued a message “alerting our customers that they will see a spike in their energy bills because, quite frankly, they’ve been cranking up the thermostat, and as a result your energy bills are going to go up.”

Having had one of the coldest winters in recent history didn’t help. Penn said that Dominion Energy customers used more energy during the first week of January than any previous week on record.

Still, some area residents questioned if there was more to the story, publicly asking if their electricity providers were taking advantage of them.

Penn discounted this theory, saying that energy bills are a direct reflection of a customer’s consumption.

Power bills from three of the area’s major electric companies — Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, Dominion Energy and SVEC — follow a general pattern: a flat fee around $10; an access charge of a few pennies per kilowatt-hour, which changes after the first few hundred kilowatt-hours consumed in a billing cycle; and the actual rate per kilowatt-hour, which hovers around 10 cents.

It follows that the more power consumed, the more it costs. In Virginia, the average monthly power bill in 2016 was $127.14 with an average consumption of 1,120 kWh, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Sluss, an SVEC customer, used 4,100 kWh during the cycle that his bill shot up over $400.

Some power companies offer programs to help alleviate the seasonal, sky-high bills in the heat of the summer and cold of the winter. One such program is budget billing, which grants customers steady bills throughout the year. SVEC also offers energy audits to help customers identify energy-saving strategies geared to their specific situation.

Despite all of these programs, winter bills still prove a sore point for area customers. The recent abnormal cold spell only exacerbated the problem.

PJM Interconnection, a regional transition organization that coordinates the movements of wholesale electricity, stated in a news release that “the cold weather from Dec. 27, 2017, through Jan. 7, 2018, brought three of PJM Interconnection’s top 10 highest winter peak demands for electricity.”

The evening of Jan. 5 marked PJM’s fourth-highest wintertime peak demand ever.

Some area customers have yet to see the brunt of the recent cold snap show up on their bill yet, since electric companies don’t keep uniform billing cycles across all customers. But it’s coming.

Recognizing the recent spike in bills, REC issued a news release Jan. 11 titled, “Did I really use that much electricity?”

The release is blunt. Not so blunt as to say, “Yes, you did,” but blunt enough that REC energy adviser Louis O’Berry is quoted as saying, “Weather matters.”

According to the release, the company’s coverage area has gone through “record-breaking cold temperatures,” and electric consumption has correspondingly skyrocketed. Energy consumption between Jan. 1 and Jan. 7, the release stated, was nearly twice what it was in 2017 — a jump from 57 kWh, on average per household, to 104 kWh.

“You’ll hear some members say, ‘I didn’t increase my thermostat,'” said Ann Lewis, REC director of communications and public relations. “Well, you didn’t increase your thermostat, but it had to run a whole lot longer to try to satisfy that temperature.”

Lewis said that Christmas lights have a minimal impact on energy consumption — the killer was increased cooking, having more people in the home and pre-existing leaks in the house becoming more expensive.

SVEC offers several tips for reducing energy consumption on its website, including:

• Set thermostat to 68 degrees.

• Use space heaters wisely – they are meant to keep you warm in a confined area. They are not an efficient heating source beyond a room or two at your house.

• Set your water heater temperature no higher than 120 degrees.

• Unplug small kitchen appliances, like toaster ovens and microwaves, when not in use. You could save $10 to $20 per year.

Penn noted in an email to the Northern Virginia Daily that they want to help their customers.

“We can work with them to set up a short-term payment extension, a long-term payment plan, or even help determine if they are eligible for payment assistance through EnergyShare, a Dominion Energy program of last resort to help customers who fall behind.”