Watt's the story?

March 21, 2004

All right, class, today's lesson is on your electric bill.

Do you know how your money gets spent? Do you know what a kilowatt is? Did you know your bill can go up without your "rate" changing? Are you aware that Maryland, which doesn't own your electric lines, charges you to get electricity?

No? Well, put all four chair legs on the floor, spit out that gum and listen up.

Watt's up?

Your curling irons, toasters, microwaves and cordless phones all use up watts. Hundreds of them. And if you use a thousand - a kilowatt - in one hour, that is a kilowatt-hour, and you owe the city a little more than a nickel.

So what's a watt?

Boonsboro High School physics teacher Ralph von Philp said it's basically the "burn rate" of energy for an appliance. That burn rate over time gives you the amount of energy.


Now, your ears might be smoking, but stick with me. This part is easy.

Von Philp said that if you take 10 100-watt light bulbs and run them for one hour, you will use one kilowatt-hour of energy. Those are the same kilowatt-hours that show up on your bill.

Refrigerators, blenders and space heaters all have wattage ratings. Run them long enough, and those kilowatt-hours start racking up, von Philp said.

The long road home

The electric flow that keeps your personal computer humming and your toaster toasting starts a long way from the meter outside your apartment.

Hagerstown City Light Department manager Mike Spiker and his administrative officer, Karl Kohler, spent an hour and a half with a reporter recently explaining this process.

First, a power plant in someplace like Pennsylvania - or Ohio, or Iowa or Illinois - makes electricity, Spiker and Kohler said. Those plants burn coal or natural gas, dam rivers or convert nuclear power, and pump out electricity.

But that power can't go anywhere without the electric grid. The grid is basically all the power lines you see between cities, out in the mountains and over the rolling hills of the Maryland Piedmont and elsewhere that connect the power plants to cities.

The grid is kind of like a toll road system for electricity, Kohler said.

Power companies such as Allegheny Power, Pepco and Baltimore Gas & Electric own parts of the grid that Hagerstown is a part of, and if a watt of power goes over one of their lines, they get a cut of Hagerstown's bill.

But those companies don't control how much power goes over their lines. That job is up to a government-regulated not-for-profit company called PJM, which is known as a regional transmission operator.

PJM is like a traffic cop of sorts for the grid that connects to Hagerstown. It controls the flow of electricity from power plants through the grid in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and parts of West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio, and on to customers such as the city of Hagerstown.

Everyone who owns lines on the grid, gives power to the grid or buys power off the grid is a paying member of PJM. As a member, City Light pays $5,000 a year, Spiker said.

Money, money, money

Residential customers buy their power from the city in kilowatt-hours, or thousand-watt increments. The average City Light residential customer uses 700 kilowatt-hours of power a month, which works out to $44.59. That is split among the city, its energy supplier and taxes, Spiker said.

To run its department - pay for employee wages, maintenance and new facilities - City Light bills its own rate to its 17,200 customers. The average residential customer pays $.05138 per kilowatt-hour, but commercial and industrial customers generally pay higher rates.

The light department projects it will collect about $20.3 million in customer bills this year, Spiker said.

Some of that money - $400,000 - is to be shifted out of the light department's budget into a general fund account called the Community Betterment Fund.

City Finance Director Alfred Martin said every year since the fund's inception in 1996, $400,000 in City Light revenue has been placed in the fund, which is used for city budget items the following year. The account also earns interest annually, adding a few thousand dollars to its value.

This year, the city approved about $406,000 in expenses from the fund, including $114,000 in annual debt payments on the city ice rink, $110,000 in upgrades to city parks and $50,000 for the new Downtown Residency Initiative, Martin said.

But before power gets to a customer, Hagerstown needs to get it from somewhere else, which is where power companies come in.

Power to the people

Power companies such as Dominion Energy Marketing, Allegheny Power and Pepco act like wholesale distributors of electricity, Kohler said. They need to find a way to get the electricity from the producer - the plant - to customers such as Hagerstown.

To do that, any company must go through PJM. While PJM directs the flow of electricity over the grid like a traffic cop, it also directs how cash is transferred from the power companies to the companies that own the power lines, like a stock exchange, Kohler said.

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