Allegheny's bulb blast was energy wasted

January 13, 2008|By TERRY HEADLEE

This wasn't one of Allegheny Power's brighter ideas.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: This has got to be one of the dumbest, most irresponsible stunts that a public utility has pulled in my 25 years in the newspaper industry.

You probably know by now that Allegheny Power recently mailed two energy-saving light bulbs to each of its 220,000 Maryland customers.

We thought it was a bit odd and started asking questions. Last Monday, Herald-Mail reporter Marlo Barnhart broke a story saying that the compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs weren't exactly free. In fact, they will cost each customer a total of $11.52 during the next year.


Take a close look at your electric bill and you will see a 96-cent "energy conservation surcharge" per month to pay for these so-called "free" bulbs.

Of course, we all should know by now that nothing is really ever free.

Allegheny announced its light bulb program last fall, but didn't mention the surcharge. Company spokesman Todd Meyers told a reporter that consumers still should have known because that information was contained in public filings with the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Please raise your hands if you regularly check public filings with the PSC.

I thought so. So is it me or don't you also find it ironic that the light bulb resembles a screw?

After the story broke, the complaints started to pour into our newsroom via e-mails and phone calls at a level unprecedented during my tenure here.

The outrage expressed by local consumers seemed legitimate - why should they be forced to pay for something they neither ordered nor want?

That actually is the good news because other readers complained they were paying for light bulbs they never received.

Still other customers told us the light bulbs were broken - which is not a good thing because they contain mercury, which, if not handled properly, can be a safety hazard.

The EPA recommends that you open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes if you accidentally break one of these CFL bulbs. Oh, I almost forgot - you also need to wear disposable rubber gloves (I'm sure we all have a pair of those hanging around the house) and if you use your vacuum cleaner, you need to be sure to remove the vacuum bag when you're finished and place it in two sealed plastic bags for disposal.

One reader said he received four packages by mistake. What makes that funny is that he lives in Hagerstown and shouldn't have received any light bulbs since he is not an Allegheny Power customer.

So, you think this can't get any worse?

Well, read on.

Company spokesman Meyers also said earlier this week that the power company made no profit on the bulbs, charging only what it cost to buy them and mail them.

What a bunch of baloney.

Similar bulbs can cost as little as $2 to $3 each, according to a number of readers who said they went shopping for them at Lowe's and Sam's Club.

Bulk mailing these also would cost roughly the same price.

And don't believe the garbage about the surcharge also covering the energy conservation educational materials. When I did the math, that accounted for less than 4 percent of the surcharge.

But even if Allegheny Power isn't making a penny on this, it should at least be upfront about how efficient these compact fluorescent light bulbs really are.

The claim is that the light bulbs will last nine years.

By now, you should know to always read the fine print.

You might need a magnifying glass for this, but on the back of the box, near the bottom, is a disclaimer that states that is based on "3 hours average use per day."

Are you fed up yet?

Here's my advice:

First, call the Maryland Public Service Commission at 1-800-492-0474.

I'll let you in on one of my secrets - don't waste your time listening to the excruciatingly long voice-mail directory. Immediately hit "O" when you connect. This will transfer your call directly to a PSC operator.

Tell the operator you want to file a complaint. But please be nice, these representatives just work there and probably are getting hit with the same surcharge.

Next, call Allegheny Power at 1-800-255-3443. Same drill as above, but this time, you will have to hit "0" four times after a different voice message comes on to reach a live person.

Tell the company representative you want to file a complaint and you want a refund.

This public relations fiasco is a shame because Allegheny Power should get some credit for trying to cut energy costs for consumers.

Unfortunately, it won't because this dimwitted idea was botched from the start.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at

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