Sunday, January 11, 2009

30,000 can't pay NES bills on time

TVA rate increase, cooler weather bring unexpected surgeBy Chris Echegaray • THE TENNESSEAN • January 11, 2009 A record 30,000 Nashville Electric Service customers — nearly 10 percent — sought payment arrangements on December bills sometimes double what they expected. The utility's office was inundated with calls, spokesman Tim Hill said, often from customers who never had a problem paying on time. Some customers say they're making choices between turning on the heat and meeting basic needs. Nashville resident Charlesetta Buchanan came up with $414 to pay her 87-year-old aunt's latest monthly electric bill, which typically runs about $130. "It's become a choice between staying warm or eating," Buchanan said. "Or choose to stay warm over your medicine. This is not a one-time thing. With these rates, somebody is pocketing something." Several factors came together in December to force bills higher, according to an NES statement: • The Tennessee Valley Authority, where NES gets electricity, levied scheduled rate increases totaling 9.1 percent. • TVA also passed on a fuel cost adjustment of more than 20 percent. • The weather was colder in recent months than in November and December 2007. • Because of the holidays and meter reading cycle, NES tacked an extra day onto bills. NES serves about 355,000 customers in Davidson County and portions of other Middle Tennessee counties. The company will be more lenient for the next several months, Hill said, with representatives deciding whether to grant 10-day extensions on the due date and waive late fees. Residential customers were told to expect rate increases of up to $20, based on average usage of 1,320 kilowatt hours a month, beginning Oct. 1. But December overwhelmed many. Anthony Hardy said his latest bill made him believe in conspiracy theories. In June, he went to the NES office to sign up for the monthly average payment plan so he could anticipate the bill amount on his 768-square-foot duplex — $158 a month. His latest bill was $228. "It's impossible for a place this big to use that much more electricity," Hardy said. Next bill should dip Other regions are experiencing similar hikes in bills as a result of the spike in fuel and coal costs months ago, TVA spokesman Jim Allen said. The North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency passed a 4 percent increase that will be in effect Feb. 1 after already raising rates in August. Portland General Electric Co. in Oregon is seeking a 9 percent rate increase this month. Still, Tennessee has some of the lowest rates in the country, Allen said. NES residential customers pay 9.8 cents per kilowatt hour when most of the nation pays well over 10 cents, federal statistics show. And customers should see a slight dip on their next bill, Allen said. "We will have a 6 percent decrease, and it will be passed on to the customer," Allen said. "Coal went through the ceiling as well as natural gas. It's come down and coal leveled off." The question for ratepayers now is how much of TVA's ash spill cleanup costs in Harriman, Tenn., will be passed along and when. The tab will cost tens of millions of dollars or more, and TVA Chairman Bill Sansom said last week that the cost will "get into rates sooner or later." Still, the utilities have their supporters. Nashville resident Theresa Morrow said her electric bill averages $80, but she heats her more than 1,600-square-foot home with gas. The highest electric bill she's received in the summer is $180 with the air conditioner set at 62 degrees. "I have no need to complain, and I get aggravated at those who do," she wrote in an e-mail. "Most of the ones complaining are either living in a drafty old place or leave the lights on 24/7. Electricity in Tennessee is still low in my opinion."

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