ROANOKE, Va. – American Electric Power representatives responded Tuesday to complaints that hundreds of people in the Roanoke Valley have sent to 10 News about their power bills.
Many people said their electricity bills are $100 or $200 higher for December compared to the fall months, and they don’t understand why.
Sandra Diaz said her family does whatever it can to keep electricity costs low in their small Roanoke apartment: using a towel for insulation, keeping the lights off and using a heater. But she said seeing her recent bill was a shock.
"It makes no sense when we conserve energy and we do everything we can not to use much electricity,” she said.
Her power bill in December more than doubled, to over $200.
"I was angry,” she said. “I don't understand why it's so high when we're not doing anything different here."
Roanoke resident Cathy Wydner’s bill doubled also.
"It just does not make any sense for my bill to double in one month,” Wydner said.
She said she’s worried about the future.
"It puts me in a bad position because I'm on a limited income, being disabled. How am I going to pay it?" she said.
These women are not alone. Some people in Roanoke showed us bills that are $200 higher and many show usage spikes that have more than doubled for their December bill. A petition to investigate the company has more than 15,000 signatures online.
AEP spokeswoman Teresa Hamilton Hall said many of the reactions are understandable.
"We sympathize. I can certainly understand. No one wants to see their electric bill increase, no one,” Hamilton Hall said.
She said the format of the bill changed recently, which may be why some people think they’re seeing new charges. Specifically, the delivery charge is in a new place, but is is not a new charge.
The Virginia State Corporation Commission governs companies like AEP. Hamilton Hall said there haven't been any rate changes or added any fees in the period of time in question.
"Any increase that a customer is seeing on their bill is reflective of their usage,” she said.
Colder conditions can lead to increased usage and higher bills. The month of November began with highs in the mid-60s, but ended with highs in the low 50s.
She encouraged anyone who has questions to call the customer service number, so representatives can answer questions about bills or budget plans.
AEP offers a monthly payment plan, which stabilizes monthly billing by making adjustments throughout the year. Another budget plan makes bills the same each month, ending in a “settle up” month that could result in a credit at the end of the billing year.
Hamilton Hall added that if someone can’t pay, the company doesn’t shut off power in freezing conditions.
AEP also provides services to make homes more efficient.
“Whether you have a heat pump, electric furnace, baseboard heat, oil, gas, whatever it may be, there are lots of tips and strategies to help improve the efficiency of your home and your heating system,” energy efficiency coordinator Zack Bacon said.
AEP offers a free online energy checkup to help people know how to make their homes more efficient, and it has a program that provides a rebate for a contractor giving an assessment of the efficiency of someone’s home.
There are other resources for people who are struggling.
10 News has reported on a program in the New River Valley where New River Community Action is taking applications for one-time assistance with electric bills for those who qualify. It's part of a partnership with AEP's Neighbor-to-Neighbor Dollar Energy Fund Hardship Program. Eligible customers receive a one-time grant that is applied directly to their electric bill.
Virginia 2-1-1, which connects people to community services, said Tuesday that it received more than 4,000 calls for utility assistance in southwest Virginia in the last year and was able to help all but 1 percent of the callers.
Groups like Roanoke’s Total Action for Progress also offer assistance to many people struggling to pay bills.