ROANOKE, Va. – This week, lawmakers will debate new regulations for electric companies like American Electric Power. 10 News is working for you to follow up on your complaints about high electricity bills.
Hundreds of people have voiced complaints on social media about their power bills, saying they're not sure why they're as high as they are, and 10 News heard from more than 1,500 people after airing a story last month.
Some customers' January bills increased by up to $200. A petition to investigate the company now has more than 23,000 signatures online.
AEP representatives said Monday everything is working fine on the utility's end and it stands by the accuracy of the bills customers receive.
10 News went with AEP meter electrician supervisor Dee Bryant to see how they test their meters. AEP tests hundreds of meters each year. More than 99.9% are working as they should.
To read the meters, crews drive around the area and access the data remotely from radio signals. They said if the meters go bad, the units stop transmitting altogether.
"If we determine that the meter is accurate, we'll start looking for other things that could be driving their bill up," Bryant said.
Those causes could be anything from inefficient water heaters, to poor insulation, to the emergency heat coming on, which can use four times the energy, according to Bryant.
"The heat pump should be left on automatic so that it will work like it should and use the emergency as a backup if it needs to," he said.
Frozen heat pumps that cause the emergency heat to come on can increase costs as well, and he said some people don't know that electric furnaces are more expensive to run than a heat pump.
Spokeswoman Teresa Hamilton Hall said because rates haven't changed, higher bills mean more energy used.
"We certainly understand their concern," she said. "We know that bills are higher this time of year and it's tied to the energy usage."
When the temperatures drop, heating costs rise. During a recent cold snap, AEP found homes needed an average of 85 percent more energy for heating than during the same period last year.
"My own bill, it also doubled. It's happening everywhere," Hamilton Hall said.
Last month was a few degrees colder than last January, although this past December was similar to the previous December.
Hamilton Hall said it's important that people compare bills from the same home with months that have similar expected energy use. The number of days in a billing cycle can vary, and she said there are many details on bills that explain the cost.
You can call the AEP customer service line to have representatives answer questions about usage and bills, and there are new payment options since our last story aired.
Hamilton Hall said that if someone can’t pay, the company doesn’t shut off power in freezing conditions. To address confusion about two specific fees listed on the bill, she said the transmission fee relates to the cost to send along transmission lines and the fuel fee relates to the cost to create the power. She said those two fees have always been there.
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 211, 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.