Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Utility bills, circa 1942

Posted by Daniel Hall on September 28, 2007

I got my combined utility bill for my apartment today.  It said I used negative 429 kilowatt-hours of electricity last month.  I “owe” the utility -$66 for this service.

How did this happen?  My guess is that the utility only reads the meter every couple of months.  I haven’t been in my apartment very long, but so far this year my typical electricity bill has been very small, around $20 or so.  This is despite rates that are around 15.5 cents per kWh, which is really high.  Presumably this is because my roommate and I weren’t using the AC and we pretty much have CFLs all over the place, and even when we are around we don’t leave extra lights on.  However, last month we got a bill for $100 in electricity.  At the time I just assumed that this was because summer in DC arrived and we had cranked on the AC to stay alive.

This most recent bill puts things in a new light, because it covers late July to late August.  I know we were using the AC during this period.  My guess is that the utility company has been coming out every other month, and perhaps charging historical use rates on the months in between.  If this is the case — and there’s not much evidence it actually is,* but stay with me for a sec — then this means my roommate and I either use the AC far less than the previous occupants, or our housefull of CFL bulbs are actually buying us quite a bit of reduced electricity.  I am leaning towards the former since I hadn’t noticed wild fluctuations in my electricity bill back in the spring when presumably the historical electricity used would have been based mostly on lights, refrigeration, etc., and not the AC.  But frankly it’s really hard to tell because I only have 2 data points prior to the wild swing from $100 to -$66.  This will warrant further watching.

The really crazy thing about the story, however, is how outdated my utility company is: they still send someone out to read the meter?   Shouldn’t they have some smart meters, some real-time data or something?  Plus this would let them charge me real-time prices, which would be great since I’m never at home with the lights or AC on in the peak afternoon period.

But that’s another post.

*The water company in Austin used to do this when I lived there… which led to a rather less pleasant story I’ll have to tell sometime that involved a $1200 water bill.

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