The impacts of last month’s winter storm continue to hit North Texans who say their power bills shot up -- in some cases by hundreds of dollars.
Several people who get their power through the nonprofit Navarro County Electric Cooperative contacted NBC 5 Responds about electricity bills ranging from around $400 to nearly $1,000.
Laurie Langston of Corsicana received a bill for $983 – due on March 16 after she said she and her dad struggled to stay warm through power outages. Langston said she and her father live in a 2,000-square-foot metal building. part of which was converted to living space.
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“I almost had a heart attack, honestly, because I wasn't expecting that,” Langston said.
Her bill showed the cooperative logged her usage at 6,050 kilowatt hours at a time when Langston said she expected her usage would be down because she didn’t have continuous power during the storm. Though the family uses space heaters, Langston said she had no warning her usage and her bill would soar.
“We've used space heaters and we’ve lived like this for three years. We've had cold snaps and never has our electric bill been even $400 dollars,” she said. “I work hard, I've got a good job, but it would strap me."
In Red Oak, Billy Roberts and Brandy Aderholt received a bill for $794 for their house and a small shop where Roberts said he works on cars on the weekends.
“I just started laughing,” Roberts said. “I thought it was a joke, honestly.”
The couple said they were gone for part of February and didn’t expect their bill would increase by hundreds of dollars.
Aderholt said she called the cooperative about their bill.
“That's when I found out we had the rate change from nine cents to 15 cents,” Aderholt said. “Why did it change and why was I not notified of the change? And she explained that the fuel prices had gone up from where they get the electricity and then that was passed down to all the co-op owners.”
The general manager and CEO of the Navarro County Electric Cooperative said it was hit especially hard when the Texas Public Utility Commission directed ERCOT to lift what amounted to a price cap in order to encourage power generators to bring more electricity onto the market when the grid was in danger.
In a filing to the PUC, Navarro County Electric Cooperative joined other power providers in saying ERCOT kept prices high for too long and called for regulators to retroactively adjust the price for the time the worst of the crisis had passed.
“Electric bills vary based on the electricity provider," ERCOT said in an email. "Cooperatives and other entities make their own arrangements that determine their exposure to the market.”
ERCOT added that it administers the wholesale power market and doesn’t set rates for individual power providers.
“This was an intentional and carefully considered decision to protect human health and safety while stabilizing the electric grid," the regulator wrote.
ERCOT referred NBC 5 to recent testimony by its CEO to the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence.
For Navarro County Electric Cooperative customers, also called owners, the price per kilowatt hour increased from $0.094 to $0.148.
Usage may have also increased because it takes more power to heat cold air than to cool hot air. When the power came back on in homes that lost electricity and became extraordinarily cold, it took more power to heat the home.
Texas lawmakers continue to hold hearings after the winter storm. Some have said they would support mandating a retroactive price change to provide relief for electricity customers.
Tim Morstad, associate state director of AARP Texas, explained it’s not clear if there would be immediate relief for customers.
“It's still too early to tell if these high electricity bills are going to be relieved somehow, whether it's from the Texas legislature or by state regulators,” Morstad said.
In the meantime, Morstad said those facing high bills should contact their power provider or cooperative.
“If they're a member of a co-op, contact the co-op and ask about the bill, ask about the rate that was charged, ask about the usage that was used to calculate the bill," Morstad said. "If it seems on the up and up, ask for a deferred payment plan and see if you can spread out this high bill over the next five to six months to catch up."
Unlike other parts of the state, where Texans can shop around for their power provider, rural cooperative owners don’t have other providers to pick from. The owners elect board members who represent them in cooperative decisions.
Morstad said even consumers who had a choice are facing immediate high bills if their usage went up, as it did for many during the storm, or if any part of their electric plan included a variable rate.
Adding another layer, Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which is a provider of power to Navarro County Electric Cooperative, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after the winter storm disaster.
“After receiving $2.1 billion dollars in charges from ERCOT for the seven-day extreme cold weather event in February, Brazos Electric’s entered into a financial restructuring under Chapter 11 to protect our Member cooperatives and their retail members against unaffordable electric bills," Brazos Electric Power Cooperative Executive Vice President and General Manager Clifton Karnei said in an email. "This will allow us time to assess any legislative response to the extreme cold weather event and to work through the bankruptcy proceeding.”
Asked Brazos Electric said it was too early to tell if consumers who get their power from Navarro County Electric Cooperative could anticipate any financial relief.
“It has yet to be determined exactly how that's going to work, over what timeframe it's going to be spread, but that money is going to have to come from somewhere,” said Kaiba White with Public Citizen Texas.
White said the disaster would have far-reaching impacts for Texas consumers.
“There are others of us around the state that will pay. It’s just are we going to maybe pay over the next year or perhaps longer? Some utilities have talked about spreading these costs over up to 10 years so as to lessen the pain on their customers,” White said.
For Marcus Blalock in Corsicana, the pain is felt now in the form of a $698 electric bill.
“Being honest with you, I can probably pay the bill,” Blalock said. “But, I think it is very unfair for them to keep gouging at the consumer.”
Navarro County Electric Cooperative’s general manager and CEO said the price per kilowatt hour is back within a normal range for March. The co-op said it is offering a three-month payment plan of 50% down with than 25% due over the next two months.
There is another six-month deferment payment plan that must be requested in writing, according to the co-op.
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