Many Peninsula residents were surprised to find that their electric bills surged after the cold in January, and Dominion Energy is fielding plenty of calls.
Rena Bannister, who lives in a five-person household, said she was shocked to get her highest bill ever since living in her 2,850-square-foot Hampton house for the past 13 years. Her latest electric bill tallied $536, which was up from $246 in December and $346 in January 2017, she said.
“It’s a lot of money,” Bannister said. “That’s a scary payment.”
She checked her bill history but it was confusing that January surpassed July, when the home with a pool was running major air conditioning and hosting parties and activities, Bannister said. She also has a new Trane unit, programmable thermostat and newer windows.
“We’re kind of like, wow,” Bannister said.
Dominion typically sees an increase in calls every winter and summer when customers tend to use more energy, said spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris.
“The bigger the difference between the temperatures inside and outside, the harder your heating systems have to work,” Harris said.
But the first week of January, when it snowed, Dominion customers used more energy than any other week on record, Harris said. Jan. 6 was Dominion's highest demand ever for a 24-hour period, with Jan. 7 coming in second. The hourly peak at 8 a.m. Jan. 7, also ranked No. 3 on record, she said.
The average temperature in Newport News in January 2017 was 43 degrees but the monthly average in January dropped to 36 degrees with more below-freezing temperatures, said Andrew Zimmerman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wakefield.
While January 2017 also had snow, the weather afterward became more mild, whereas this January had more extended cold with the vast majority of days having a low that was below freezing, Zimmerman said.
Electricity usage also was compounded by the holidays and people staying home from school or work, Harris said. Snowfall and ice forced up to seven days of closures for most school divisions in the Peninsula area in January.
Some customers mistakenly believe that rates have gone up, but that is not the case, Harris said. Usage is the culprit, she said, adding the meters are highly accurate so a malfunctioning meter typically isn’t the issue.
Harris recommends that customers analyze their bills online, where they can see temperature impact over time. She said the company offers payment extensions and long-term payment plans in addition to offering budget billing that averages the monthly payment out over the year.
“We understand it can be a shock when you open up your mail and your electric bill is a lot higher than usual, and we want people to understand why and what they can do to improve the situation and we want them to know what we can do to help,” Harris said.
Wayne White, who has a roughly 1,900-square-foot home in Poquoson, said he posted a photo of the energy usage breakdown by month from his Dominion bill on Facebook about a week ago because he was shocked.
While the house’s mother-in-law suite uses an electric heater, the main home, fireplace, stove and water heater all run on gas, he said. The furnace is only a couple years old and he replaced the suite’s electric heater this past summer. He said he was expecting a lower bill because it’s more energy efficient.
White's electric usage in January was comparable with July and August, but was 44 percent higher than in January 2017.
“It just seems like something is askew this month,” White said.
Dennis Ivey Sr. of Norge said he understands the bill would be higher because of the cold, but he wasn’t expecting his bill to nearly double to $350.85, especially since the house was empty for two weeks and the home is well insulated. The highest bill he previously paid was $198, he said.
He said that while Dominion could have been better with customer service over the phone, a company representative who checked the meter was wonderful. Ivey said he sent a complaint to the State Corporation Commission about the high bill.
“Something’s got to be wrong,” Ivey said. “We’re at the mercy of a monopoly.”
Angie Tyler, a single mom living in Toano, said she feels similarly and was shocked her bill nearly tripled from $123 in December to $344 in January. It doubled from $153 in January 2017.
“I’m willing to pay an increase but it has to be reasonable,” Tyler said. “That’s a lot of money.”
Still, not everyone complained of higher electric bills this winter.
Jose Vasquez, who lives in Hampton, said his most recent bill was $127, but that it can get up to $700 in July and August.
“It kills us in the summertime,” Vasquez said.
Tim Dolan, who keeps solar panels on his Huntington Heights home in Newport News, said he typically has a Dominion bill of $8.54 because of fees and taxes after getting credit for his energy generation through net metering. He uses gas heat in addition to electric heaters, but his gas bill isn’t as high as his Verizon bill, he said.
The Air Force retiree said he invested in solar because he didn’t want to worry about his monthly electric bill getting out of hand.
“I really prefer if my bills don’t go up,” Dolan said.
Customers can call 211 to see if they qualify for Dominion’s EnergyShare assistance program, Harris said.
Dominion also offers winter energy-saving tips, like sealing air leaks, lowering the thermostat to 68 degrees and weather-stripping doors and windows, online at dominionenergy.com.