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Editorial - Power for the future

November 12, 1997

Less that a month before their report is due, members of a Maryland panel studying power deregulation are stalled over the issue of how to ensure that the poor and the elderly aren't left out of the coming electronic revolution. We suggest they get untracked by looking at a few developments around the nation.

The 20-member panel was appointed in July by Gov. Parris Glendening to look at how the state's rules might be rewritten so consumers could shop for their own electricity, just as some now shop for long-distance phone service.

But on Tuesday panel members said they're reluctant to make any change that would eliminate the Public Service Commission, which, among other things, can prevent elderly consumers' power from being shut off in the dead of winter.

But not addressing the issues involved in degregulation won't make them go away. In past editorials, we've suggested that outside power companies which "wheel" power into the state on local lines pay a surcharge for the privilege. That surcharge could be used to build a fund to ensure continued service for the poor and those living in remote areas.

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Now come two interesting developments that have us rethinking those ideas. In Massachusetts, 462 private and non-profit groups have banded together to buy power from Peco Energy Corp. of Philadelphia. In addition to saving those organizations $14 million to $20 million a year on power, Peco would also offer discount power to 130,000 employees of the group.

Enron Corp. of Texas recently signed a similar deal with the 150-member Delaware Valley HealthCare Council. Enron will begin by showing its new customers how to cut power use and financing charges for hospital equipment.

These deals suggest two possibilities. The state could require that power companies include the poor and elderly in other large groups they're serving, or those groups might form their own users' organization to negotiate for cheap power.

None of this will be as easy as letting some state agency handle everything. But if Maryland wants cheaper power, its must put nostalgia aside and craft some rules for the fture.

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