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Cold Winter, Hot Summer, High Bills
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Not Paying the Price

As bills increased and income decreased, more customers found themselves unable to pay, but most kept their power.

Georgia Power said it saw a 7 percent increase in customers who were 30 days past due, but a 7 percent decrease in the number of power disconnections. However spokesperson Lynn Wallace said 2010 had more cold and heat weather advisory days, where the weather is too extreme to allow a person to live safely without utilities.

Disconnections and late payments in Covington appeared to be up slightly in 2010, but Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight said it was hard to really establish any patterns, other than the fact usage was up.

Late payment penalties:

City of Covington — 10 percent for electric and gas

Georgia Power — 1.5 percent of any bill over $75; minimum $2 charge

Snapping Shoals — flat fee of $10

The period of day after day of 90-degree high temps appears to be over and Joy Cason is one of thousands of utility residents breathing a sigh of relief.

Cason recently handed the city of Covington a $539 utility bill, and she’s not the only one struggling to bear the brunt of high bills reminiscent of a few years ago. Several residents chimed in on the issue on The News’ Facebook site, including Shayna Hunter who said her bill doubled from last year, despite the fact she didn’t change her habits.

However, mother nature did. And to date, Covington residents have used 17 percent more electricity that last year, 49 percent more gas and are paying a couple of hundred dollars more toward their bills.

Fire and Ice

The beginning of fall greeted Covington with a 91 degree this year, the 18th day in September the high temperature passed 90. September 2009 didn’t have a single day over 90 degrees.

June was the hottest it’s been in 30 years, while August was the highest it’s been in 15 years, according to Georgia Power. However, State Climatologist David Stooksbury said areas of the state recorded the highest ever average night temperatures, which also pushed

up demand. Night temps rarely dipped below 70 degrees this summer, and were often a full 5 degrees higher than 2009.

Given the fact that bumping a thermostat even a couple of degrees higher or lower can really increase usage, losing 5 or more degrees of cooling every night meant air conditioners were working harder than ever as residents slept.

While spring temps weren’t that out of the ordinary, the winter was the coldest since 1978, which has led to the 49 percent bump in gas usage. Those electric customers were hit even harder, because electric heat systems are generally less efficient; Covington residents used 28 percent more electricity in January 2010 compared to 2009.

There is some good news on the horizon for utility customers, as Stooksbury said the area is in a class La Nina system, which is generally warmer and drier, which should carry over into the fall and winter. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing, because the winter is generally when Georgia’s water tables are replenished. He said there is an increased chance that Georgia could fall into a drought in 2011.

Also, Stooksbury said the historically warm nights could be a sign of global warming, but he cautioned that one year does not make a trend. If the pattern persists over the next few years, it would be good evidence that human-induced global warming is occurring, he said.

Covington’s classic utility debate

Covington purchased more base load electric capacity in 2009, specifically to help mitigate warmer summers. However, bills are still tied to usage, which has simply jumped, officials said.

During the energy crisis of 2007, Covington was forced to buy around 25 percent of its power off the open market; which was unfortunate because energy was in high demand. The costs of buying power are passed along to the customer in the form of the PCA, or price cost adjustment. Having increased supplies of base load power, power that is guaranteed to be provided and normally bought at a contracted price, the PCA is stabilized.

However, even base load prices are not entirely locked in, and the actual power producers will pass on increased costs to their customers, like cities. Not only have temps have increased, but the PCA has also increased slightly this year, as demand around the state increased.

An Outlier or a Model?

Julie Coryea doesn’t have Covington utilities - that’s true. But even Snapping Shoals and Georgia Power customers saw increases; Georgia Power customers used 12.9 percent more power during the summer of 2010.

However, Coryea bucked the trend entirely, reducing her bill every month this summer. She followed all the recommendations, and for her at least, they worked. She bumped the thermostat up to 79 degrees during the day and 77 degrees at night. She didn’t turn it off during the day, which experts say will only cause the air condition system to work harder when you turn it on at night.

She left her thick curtains closed during the day to keep out heat and turned off lights and other devices when she left the room. And she’s used lots of fans.

"We were the home of the box fan," Coryea joked. "Turing up the thermostat was important. You adjust to the heat, you really do…a lot of people don’t want to take control. People leave everything on, lights and the computer."

Not everyone can afford to keep the house that warm, particularly those with allergies like Snapping Shoals resident Amy Newton, or other conditions. However, for those who are willing and able to muddle through the heat the results seem promising. For those who can’t, at least it’ll be a mild winter.