Low temps, high prices: WDBJ7 investigates high Appalachian Power electricity bills and how to lower the cost

Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 7:17 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - We’ve been tracking and reporting on your concerns over high Appalachian Power electric bills, and we’re taking a deeper look into what may be causing the increases and what customers can do to lower the cost.

We’ve reported on fuel rate increases and high energy usage during a historically cold December, so WDBJ7 went on a home energy assessment to see what experts had to say about lowering your bill.

Linda Shiflett received Appalachian Power bills of hundreds of dollars during the winter months. From November 15 to December 15, 2022, her bill was $533.09. The next bill from December 16 to January 18, 2023 was $625.53. One of her most recent bills from January 19 to February 16, 2023 was $351.99.

“I want answers,” Shiflett said. “Why?”

Shiflett explained those bills have gotten to the point where they are unaffordable.

“We’re having to pay our bills with credit cards; we’re having to do without a lot of things,” Shiflett said. “That should not be the one thing that we have to sacrifice with.”

An Appalachian Power spokesperson explained December’s cold snap and the fuel rate increase pushed customers’ energy usage and bills higher this year.

“There has been an increase in the rate, but we’ve also seen an increase in the usage which normally happens during those winter months,” Teresa Hamilton Hall said.

WDBJ7 compared Shiflett’s energy usage from December and January over the last two years. She experienced a 21% increase in kilowatt hours (kWh) between December 2021, 2,863 kWh, and December 2022, 3,471 kWh. There was a 55% increase in the cost from $344.79 in 2021 to $533.09 in 2022.

While comparing January 2022 to this past January, Shiflett saw a 15% increase in energy usage from 3,385 kWh to 3,878 kWh and a 50% increase in the cost from $417.23 in 2022 to $625.53 in 2023.

“I’ve always done my due diligence with my electric bill, I put plastic over my windows in the winter, I have always tried to cut the lights out when I leave a room,” Shiflett said. “I try to take steps to make my bill lower and it just seems like none of this is working anymore.”

In addition to the fuel and base rate increases this year, the kilowatt hour rate increased 18% in 2021 and 30% in 2022. Hamilton Hall explained each rate going up multiples the price of electricity.

“You’re seeing bills go up because rates are going up,” Hamilton Hall said.

APCo reports Virginia customers are using less energy on average. In 2018, the average customer used 14,320 kWh per year. In 2022, the average went down to 13,350 kWh per year.

“Appliances are more energy-efficient than they used to be; people are more educated about energy usage than they used to be,” Hamilton Hall said.

Shiflett didn’t understand why her energy usage and bill were so high, so she requested a home energy assessment, in which AEP brings in authorized contractors to make energy efficiency recommendations.

The company states any customer can request a free assessment to try and bring down the cost. APCo reports around 17,000 customers have participated in home assessments from 2016 to 2022.

“What our data has shown is that energy usage has decreased for those customers,” Hamilton Hall said. “Those who participated in the program have reduced their usage by about 700 kilowatt hours a year.”

Contractors explained it’s the little things that could be a factor for the high bills.

“Check your thermostat settings, your insulation levels, and make sure that your windows and are sealed up,” Bee Green Solutions field technician Melvin Ross said.

At the home inspection, contractors explained the biggest cause of energy usage is heat rising into the attic from ducts not being sealed properly.

“If you seal those areas up, you don’t have the heating and cooling going into the attics and crawl spaces,” AEP Take Charge residential account manager Jeff Lineberry said.

During the assessment, contractors checked every room inside the home and checked Shiflett’s heat pump.

“We’re mainly looking at things that would make the home better as far as energy efficiency,” Lineberry said. “We don’t see electric bills; we don’t look at meters or anything like that.”

“If you’re saying to me that my electric bill is high because I’m using high wattage, then explain to me where that high wattage is coming from,” Shiflett responded.

Contractors changed Shiflett’s lightbulbs to LED, covered outlet gaskets, wrapped her heat pump pipes and resealed ceiling ducts leading into the attic during the home inspection for free. An APCo representative on site told Shiflett she should see decreases in her bill.

“You should see some difference,” APCo energy efficiency consumer programs manager Tammy Stafford said. “It may not be the full difference until you get to next winter, but it’s kind of a process.”

The final home report recommended Shiflett switch over to energy-efficient light bulbs, invest in energy efficient appliances and properly insulate her crawlspaces.

But Shiftlett was still left with questions.

“They told me a lot of things I could do that I think might save little costs,” Shiftlett said. “But at the end of the day, I can’t see where these little changes are going to make that big of a difference.”

Based on the home assessment and estimated kilowatt hour energy decrease, customers could save about $110 a year. Some customers may also see credits of $2-$3 in their accounts because the State Corporation Commission decreased the base rate in December.

This is just the first part of the story in which WDBJ7 looks into higher energy bills. We’ll check back in with Shiflett when she gets her next utility bill to see if these changes made a difference in the cost.