The leaves are falling, the air is getting crispy, and many of us are taking out our winter blankets and turning on the heat. As temperatures drop, our energy bills spike, a phenomenon that isn’t new to most families. But each winter, it feels increasingly like bundling up with wool socks and sweaters and resisting the urge to crank the heat can’t save us from painfully high heating bills. And too many Marylanders are facing bills they can’t afford.
Winters in most of Maryland are far from harsh, but the high cost of gas to heat our homes certainly is. In the past 10 years, the price of gas itself for Maryland consumers has increased nearly 40%. But elevating gas prices are only part of the reason bills are so high. Gas utilities in Maryland including Baltimore Gas and Electric, the state’s largest utility, have dramatically increased spending on new gas infrastructure, driving up bills and locking in profits for their shareholders.
According to the Office of the People’s Counsel, an independent state agency that represents Maryland utility customers, BGE is investing in its gas system at twice the rate of its electric system and is just one third of the way through replacing the 100 year old system. They claim all of this spending is for safety, but the record shows otherwise. The choice to replace a system which is expected to become obsolete before it is paid off, instead of strategically focusing on maintenance and repair of our current system is a bad financial investment at best, and a downright money grab at worst.
This infrastructure spending has real consequences for Maryland gas customers. A recent analysis from the Office of People’s Counsel found that BGE is spending more than $6,000 per home on its gas equipment program, and expects gas customers to pay back that cost – with interest – to the tune of at least $19,000 per house. Thanks in part to this spending, the People’s Counsel projects that a BGE customer’s monthly winter bill using 160 therms of gas will grow from an average of $220 in 2021-2023 to $450 by 2035 (a 104 percent increase) and $575 by 2050 (a 160 percent increase).
Meanwhile, the state has made clear its plans to shift away from fossil fuels and towards clean, efficient, electricity to power our homes in order to reduce pollution that harms our health and the planet. While this transition won’t happen overnight, it calls into question massive investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure.
These costs are just one reason Marylanders are increasingly ditching gas and going all-electric in their homes. Electric heating and appliances are an attractive alternative thanks to technological advances in super-efficient heat pumps that provide both heating and cooling, and the increased availability and performance of electric induction stoves for cooking. I recently bought a plug in induction cooktop for my home and after a short adjustment period I can confirm: they’re worth the hype, especially for those of us with young children impatiently awaiting pasta.
Bidding farewell to gas is also good for our health. Growing scientific evidence is documenting the respiratory harms of cooking with gas and using other gas equipment in our homes. Children living in homes where people cook meals with gas-powered appliances have a 42% greater chance of experiencing asthma symptoms. Like so many Baltimore parents, I have a kid with asthma, which is what drew me to the purchase of my portable induction. Now, I have been happily keeping my stove off most days.
And a recent study found that fossil fuel equipment in residential and commercial buildings in Maryland emits more than three times as much health-harming NOx as all the state’s power plants put together. This has serious implications for the health of our families and our climate.
Fortunately, electrifying homes is increasingly a viable option for Maryland families. With a generous basket of incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act and persistently high gas utility bills, many households will look to cut the pipe and fully electrify their homes, or at least get started with the transition like I have.
We can’t rely, however, on individual action. Without proper planning, for instance, a household by household transition could exacerbate the risk of stranded costs for those left paying for the gas system, while a managed transition could retire portions of the gas system at once, lessening ratepayer impacts.
Ultimately, it’s up to state policymakers and the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. We’re counting on them to reign in gas utility spending beyond what’s necessary to maintain system safety and to initiate planning. The People’s Counsel, Maryland Energy Administration, environmentalists and consumer groups are calling for long term multi stakeholder planning into the future of home heating and gas infrastructure maintenance. The Maryland Public Service Commission is currently considering opening a proceeding to do just that, and they aren’t the only ones. New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington D.C. have all engaged in such planning.
This planning should lead utilities to strengthen clean energy infrastructure and help customers across the state upgrade their homes with better insulation and highly efficient, pollution-free equipment like heat pumps. Doing so can bring the clean energy future already underway in power generation and transportation into our homes.
We shouldn’t underestimate or downplay the challenges of such a significant transition, and even with state action, gas utility customers will have to manage higher bills for the foreseeable future. But hopefully soon, even on the harshest winter days, we can all take off our heavy coats, relax comfortably inside and not have to worry about the health, environmental and financial impacts of burning fossil fuels in our home.
We have no time to waste.
State Director, Maryland PIRG Foundation
Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Recently, Emily helped win small donor public financing in Montgomery and Howard counties, and the Maryland Keep Antibiotics Effective Act to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms. Emily also serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working, and the Steering Committees for the Maryland Pesticide Action Network and Marylanders for Open Government. Emily lives in Baltimore with her husband and dog.