Andrew Parsons, BELCO president, left, and Roger Todd, engineering assistant vice-president, at the main power plant in Pembroke earlier this summer. *File photo by Kageaki Smith
Andrew Parsons, BELCO president, left, and Roger Todd, engineering assistant vice-president, at the main power plant in Pembroke earlier this summer. *File photo by Kageaki Smith

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30: Homeowners have been hit with soaring electricity bills during the hottest period of the year.

Some families say their BELCO bills almost doubled in the past month. An increase in the ‘fuel surcharge’, which rose to its highest level in three years, was a contributing factor.

The rise hit struggling Bermudians at the worst possible time, with air conditioners running full tilt during a steamy September.

Shock

Martha Dismont of the Family Centre said many were unprepared for the increase and were shocked to see the size of their bills.

BELCO makes adjustments to the cost of electricity every month based on the global cost of fuel.

Between May and September the ‘fuel adjustment rate’ has risen from 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) to a peak of 17.25 cents — the highest since January 2009.

That translates to an increase of around $100 for a family using 2,500 kwh.

Increased use of air conditioners and a longer billing period because of public holidays may also have contributed to September’s whopping bills.

Susan McGrath Smith, BELCO spokeswoman, said: “Fundamentally though, it is the cost of fuel and the resulting fuel adjustment rate that customers are seeing reflected in their bills.

“We do get more billing inquiries from customers when the fuel adjustment rate goes up.”

One woman, who asked not to be named, told the Bermuda Sun: “Our bill has doubled for September. It’s usually between $400 and $500. Last month it was $950.”

Helping agencies, including the Coalition for the Protection of Children, have also had calls from clients struggling to pay their bills.

The Bermuda Sun reported in April that 1,134 people had their power cut off for non-payment of bills in the first three months of the year — a huge increase on 2010.

BELCO were unable to provide up-to-date figures on whether that trend has continued.

Ms Dismont said power bills were a topic of serious concern.

She said the rate increase was top of a list of worries raised at the charities’ monthly focus group meeting for families.

“They were all extremely concerned that the families they know are already struggling and are going to struggle more as a result of this.

“There have been a lot of complaints and concerns about it.

“The statement from many families was that in this environment with these challenges it seems insensitive to increase these costs.” She said it might have been fairer for BELCO to give a more public advance warning of the increase so customers could prepare.

BELCO publishes its fuel surcharge rates in the Legals’ section of the Bermuda Sun and Royal Gazette at the beginning of each month.

The rates are approved by the Energy Commission and are based on the global cost of oil.

The company’s own overheads depend on that price and the surcharge has been a long-established method of factoring the fluctuating cost into customers’ bills.

Ms Smith said BELCO was doing everything it could to keep costs down.

Efficiency

She added: “While the fuel adjustment rate is variable, depending on the cost of fuel in the world market, BELCO management made the decision to hold basic rates steady this year, keeping them the same as in 2010. 

“BELCO did not raise rates on January 1, 2011, although we had permission to do so, because we appreciate that this is a difficult economic climate for everyone.

“Many customers have responded to increased fuel adjustment rates in recent months by reducing their electricity usage, and we certainly encourage energy efficiency.”