Olson warns of costly utility bills for January


Elizabeth City City Manager Rich Olson


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Even after the cold weather passes, Elizabeth City residents may feel a chill in their wallets.

City utility customers “can expect larger than normal utility bills for January,” City Manager Rich Olson warned in his weekly update to city councilors and the mayor on Friday. The cold has forced customers’ heating systems to use a lot of power to generate warmth, and so Olson warned the city likely established a new record for peak electrical usage.

The city set a record peak of 85.8 megawatts in February 2015, thanks to bitterly cold temperatures that taxed the city utility and neighboring Albemarle Electric Membership Corp. and Dominion Power. Then, as now, icy conditions also persisted throughout the area, causing hazardous driving conditions and closing schools.

Olson didn't project what the new energy-use peak would be, but he noted the city's electrical peak on the morning of Jan. 3 was 82.4 megawatts, very close to the past record. The city used load management, which includes running generators and other measures, to shave 10 to 12 megawatts off that demand and reduce the strain on the city's utility system.

Olson also said that, due to numerous holidays over December and January, weather-related closures of city offices, and the crisis over water leaks last month, city employees read meters later than they normally would. The average amount of time people were billed for was 35 days, Olson said. He also said that about 300 customers in the Riverside and Cabbage Patch area were billed for 38 days in their last bills.

Notably, a utility customer called The Daily Advance on Tuesday to complain that she was billed for 38 days' usage, rather than a month's. It's not her fault that city workers didn't read meters as normal, she said, adding that the extra days included in her bill were a hardship for her. Cold weather already drove the bill higher — and she's still got a payment plan to pay too, she said.

Though acknowledging customers are facing high bills right now, Olson said he didn't believe those bills were so high as to justify special accommodations for customers. The city already offers customers a limited number of extensions on their bills every year, he noted.

Olson also noted this month already stands in contrast to January 2017, when the region had fairly moderate weather.

In a related update, Olson also reported the city has been keeping an eye on hot water heaters, and that the Nexgrid “smart grid” pilot project in the downtown has helped the city identify hot water leaks.

“We have been able to advise customers before they realized they had a problem,” Olson reported.

The city has yet to set up the Nexgrid system for all customers because a new citywide utility billing system needs to be set up first, Olson has said.

City officials have said that energy-inefficient residences are typically the culprit for excessive utility bills. The city offers free energy audits to help people figure out how to make their homes more energy efficient, and also offers funding for weatherizing houses. 

Local utilities also offer various tips for conserving energy in the cold. People should keep the thermostat as low as is comfortable, and turn it down several degrees when leaving home. People should also check for air leaks, ensure windows are covered with drapes or shades, and turn down their water heaters to a warm but not scalding setting.

For more tips, go to energy.gov/energysaver. Those interested in the city’s weatherization program can call 338-5115 for more information.