When the mail carrier pulled up to 411 Berkeley St. S.E. and stuffed Marge Richardson's utility bill in her mailbox, she didn't rush right out to get it.
What awaited in the white envelope with South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.'s logo was bad news for her and husband, Lloyd. Listening to neighbors fuss over high electric bills had put a bitter taste in her mouth and worry on her mind about how to pay her own bill.
But when she peeked at last month's statement from SCE&G, she was pleased. The tab was much lower than the $300 she had expected to pay, based on friends' bills in the $300 to $400 range. Even so, Mrs. Richardson's was almost $80 more than the month before.
Natural gas and electric providers say there's a reason: It's been downright cold in metro Augusta.
South Carolina recorded the chilliest December since 1915. 2000 ended on a blustery note, with the average temperature for the month only 38.4 degrees, almost 9 degrees colder than normal. Augusta was only slightly warmer with an average temperature of 38.5 degrees - 7.5 degrees below normal, according to the National Weather Service in Columbia.
January is bringing more of the same. SCE&G announced Wednesday that after the Aiken area logged a 12-degree morning, Palmetto State residents set a new winter peak demand of 4,076 megawatts of electricity in just one hour. It was the second record-breaker in as many weeks.
That means higher utility bills for residents who have tried hard to weather the winter by turning up the thermostat.
But comfort has a price - a very high price.
Just ask Mrs. Richardson.
In November, she paid $122.66 to heat her six-room home on the edge of Aiken's historic district. Last month's bill was $76 more. Two gas heaters and an electric space heater run constantly "because Lloyd is really cold-natured," Mrs. Richardson said.
"I was already budgeting our money so I could pay for it," she said. "But I can't complain."
Just a few miles from the Richardsons, executive officers at Aiken Electric Cooperative mailed advisories Wednesday to customers telling them to "brace for a significant increase" in December utility bills. Gary L. Stooksbury, the company's chief executive officer, also warns that customers should anticipate even higher January bills if record-breaking temperatures continue to chill the Southeast.
The message from Georgia isn't quite as daunting. Power companies say residents will pay more this month, but not enough to panic about - especially if they heat with electricity, because its costs have remained stable. Georgia Power Co. spokesman John Sell says that if residents have been conservative with their usage, averaging 1,000 kilowatts in winter months, they shouldn't take much of a hit in their wallets.
Natural gas customers might see more change in their bills because of the cold weather. But that will be tempered by the state Public Service Commission's policy that says companies can't make a profit or take a loss on fuel costs. Even when natural gas prices go up, the utilities can't change their base rates dramatically.
In some parts of the country, the price of natural gas has climbed as much as 50 percent in just a year. Gary Walsh of the South Carolina Public Service Commission says the rate increase is because of production didn't match demand.
But the increase in South Carolina and Georgia natural gas rates has been much smaller. In October, the price for one thermal unit of natural gas was 99 cents. On Nov. 1, the price per unit increased by 10 cents to $1.09.
Mr. Walsh said it may be this spring before prices take a plunge.
"For the duration of this winter, there doesn't look like there's any relief in sight," he said.
Federal money is available to help residents in both Georgia and South Carolina with their heating bills.
Georgia's Regular Energy Assistance Program served more than 65,000 people last year and plans to serve more in 2001. Eligibility is based on household income.
"We just received additional funding from Washington for the program, so no one should be cold this winter," said Joyce Hull, community services unit chief with the Georgia Department of Human Resources.
In Aiken County, 1,500 people have received help from a comparable program, but statewide figures were not available Wednesday.
For assistance in Georgia, call the Central Savannah River Area Economic Opportunity Authority at (706) 722-0493 or (800) 869-1150. In South Carolina, call the Community Action Office at (803) 648-6836.
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