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County has two years to craft electricity plan

March 21, 2006

It all sounded so good back in the late 1990s. Instead of a regulated power market, businesses and citizens would be free to shop for their electricity, just as they shopped for other services.

There was just one problem: Competition that would save consumers money requires an overabundance of power.

But building a power plant isn't as easy as opening another fast-food franchise. And in January 2005, when Allegheny Power's cap for commercial and industrial users expired, some customers saw increases of 25 percent or more.

In Frederick County, a Eastalco aluminum plant that used vast amounts of electricity, last year filed the required notice that it would cease doing business.

Now residential caps in central Maryland are expiring and customers there are facing soaring costs. The governor is talking about adding $25 million to his budget to subsidize power for many of the state's neediest citizens.

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The current furor is due to the fact that residential caps for the supplier known as BGE expired this year. But Allegheny's residential cap will expire at the end of 2008.

That gives those concerned about the county's economic health about two years to get ready.

One possibility would be to allow counties or municipalities to buy power in bulk for their residents and small businesses.

And, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce has already put together a buying cooperative for a number of local businesses, so some local expertise on the issue has already been developed.

Washington County, which is so close to the borders of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, must not allow itself to be put at a competitive disadvantage that would lead prospective employers and residents to go elsewhere.

Planning must begin now to deal with this situation and should include business organizations, elected officials and citizens groups.

Two years may seem like a long time, but just deciding how to proceed and who will take the lead will take up much of that time. Work must start immediately, because there is no time to waste.

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