Surprises When Reading Your Electric Bill

Center for Literacy’s tag line is “Learning for Life.” You are probably wondering what that means to the adults who come to us, asking us to help them to learn how to read or do math, or speak English.  This might sound strange to you, but I thought about this as I studied my electric bill.

The last time I opened my electric bill I discovered that it was much higher than usual. In fact, it was almost twice as much. This surprised me because we had cool days that didn’t call for air conditioning. It turned out that my ignorance of Pennsylvania’s consumer energy choice program had cost me more than $200. I thought it was just me. A little embarrassingly, I related my experience with electric choice to a few people who told me they have no idea who provides their electricity or how much they are paying per kilowatt. That made me feel better, but still left me wondering why my electric bill was so high.
I took a closer look at the bill. Electric bills contain all sorts of information that helped me figure out what was going on and allowed me to take care of the problem. I consulted the usage graph to tell me that I had indeed used less electricity than the previous month. In fact, I used less electricity than any month since May. Another chart told me how many days were in the month, my average daily usage, and the average daily temperature. All signs pointed to a lower not a higher bill. Then, I looked at the table that tells me how much the distributor charged me and how much the supplier charged me. Aha! There it was. Even though I don’t monitor the market for the cost of electricity, I knew that 15.9 cents per kilowatt for supply versus 6.5 cents for distribution was an indication that I had found the problem and needed to find out more.
I called the local distributor with the intent of making it my supplier as well as the distributor. I thought that if this company distributes electricity at 6.5 cents per kilowatt then, logically it would supply electricity at a similar rate. On this call, a pleasant computer voice told me to push 3 to default to the distributor as supplier. However, she also told me that before I push 3 I should contact my current supplier to find out if there would be any termination fees. More fees?!!! Back to the statement to find the phone number. I called the supplier and found out that my two-year term had expired which meant that the price had defaulted to the variable market value. After a surprisingly pleasant conversation, I am now contracted to pay 6.5 cents per kilowatt for three months. The friendly customer service representative even recommended that I set a reminder on my smart phone to call him the first week of December to get a new competitive rate. By now you’re asking yourself, “Why is this guy telling me this story? What does this have to do with his job?”
When something like this happens to me, I always ask myself how one of Center for Literacy’s adult learners would handle the situation? The answer is often that they can’t. Whether you are a recent immigrant or an emerging reader, you are not likely to have the reading, math, English language or communication skills needed to exercise your right to consumer choice in Pennsylvania. For example, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for a sample of material from the site PAPowerSwitch ranged from 9.0 to 15.9. At Center for Literacy last year, 81% of native English-speaking adult learners were comfortable reading material at or below a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 6.0. Among English Language Learners, 84% would have difficultly reading and comprehending the material on the site.
Reading an electric bill presents challenges of its own outside of locating and reading resources about energy choice. Information is presented through a series of charts and graphs. These are reading and math skills usually taught beginning in 4th grade. Here’s the problem, 42% of Center for Literacy’s native English-speaking adult learners don’t demonstrate mastery of these skills on their placement tests. This means that something like using the place value system to move a decimal point to understand that ‘962 KWH @ 0.149’ means 962 kilowatts of power at 15 cents per kilowatt is beyond their skill level.
As disheartening as this all sounds, all hope is not lost. 1,300 adults participated in programs at Center for Literacy last year where our mission is to unleash the power of literacy to improve lives. Center for Literacy’s dedicated tutors and teachers delivered reading, math, and English language instruction using real-life experiences like reading electric bills with the support of our generous donors and sponsors. 730 adults improved their skills in reading or math.
So the next time you read your electric bill think about the savings you should explore – and support our programs so our students have the same opportunities to save.

Michael Westover

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