When Doris Raspa saw her electric bill nearly double despite using a little less power, she probably thought the bad old days of electricity deregulation had returned.

When she called and told me her story, I, too, wondered whether alternate power suppliers were again trying too hard to stay profitable, like they did about a decade ago when the state first opened the electricity market to competition.

Raspa said she signed up with Ethical Electric to supply the power that Atlantic City Electric delivers to her Villas, Lower Township, home.

The contract called for her electric rate to be fixed at $9.39 per kilowatt hour for the first three months, and that’s just what it was the first month in January — for a cost of $87.89 for 936 kilowatts.

When she got her second bill in February, she said, the cost had jumped to $158.06 for 883 kilowatts.

She called Ethical Electric to complain and cancel her agreement, then complained to state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape, Cumberland, Atlantic, and called me to warn fellow senior citizens to keep an eye on their utility bills.

“I’m worried about the senior citizens who aren’t savvy, who just look at their bill and pay it. Maybe they think an increase is due to cold weather,” Raspa said.

When she told me Ethical Electric had allowed her to cancel her contract and sent confirmation from Atlantic City Electric that it had been terminated, I thought that was pretty good behavior by the company.

I contacted Ethical Electric, based in Washington, D.C., and its founder and CEO, Tom Matzzie, said Raspa’s bill sounded like a simple mistake.

“About 1 percent of all customer bills have errors in them each month and we issue refunds or adjust bills regularly,” Matzzie said. Either the excess amount is refunded on the next bill, or the company sends a refund check to the customer.

He said that last month, for example, Ethical Electric issued about $30,000 in refund checks, typically to customers who didn’t want to wait for the credit on the bill.

After looking into Ethical’s customer data, Matzzie said, “We had five billing errors for Atlantic City Electric customers last month. Maybe she’s one of the five.”

After further inquiry, he said that customer service had spoken to all five and addressed their concerns — before Ethical had heard from me.

Matzzie said billing errors generally result from either the utility charging the wrong rate or billing for the wrong usage.

He said that last month, a residential account in Pennsylvania was wrongly billed for a million kilowatt hours, generating a monthly bill north of $100,000. He said Ethical scrambled to fix that before it became a news story.

In the absence of evidence otherwise (more complaints, for example), I’m inclined to believe Matzzie that Raspa’s higher bill was just an error, quickly addressed by Ethical Electric in the fashion she preferred.

I find it entirely believable that third-party suppliers have to deal with a small but regular number of errors as a result of having utility companies as intermediaries between them and customers.

As it happens, Ethical Electric isn’t even trying, like other power providers, to market itself as a lower-cost alternative. Matzzie said Ethical offers energy from renewable sources at a slightly higher cost.

“Our product is not priced at a discount to the utility price to compare, because we offer 100 percent renewable energy,” he said.

Customers, depending on their usage, typically pay $8 or $10 more per month, he said. The firm competes with other renewable energy providers, and tries to offer green energy for less than them.

Raspai s correct, though, that consumers (not just seniors) need to keep watch on their utility bills (and so much more in these days of automatic billing and paying).

The cost of an error is what matters, unintended or not, and being aware of it is the first step in correcting it.

Whether it’s weather

Weather is being blamed for a moderate slowdown of factories in the region, just as it is in much of the nation.

The Business Outlook Survey of manufacturers in the South Jersey-Philadelphia-Delaware region, released last week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, showed declines in business activity, new orders and shipments.

The Fed said comments that weren’t part of the survey but made by respondents in conjunction with it “suggested much of the weakness was attributable to the severe winter weather that affected the region during the survey period” in February.

As a result, the survey’s overall index of current manufacturing activity plunged from 9.4 in January to -6.3, the first negative reading in nine months.

About a quarter of firms responding said they expect to have more employees in six months, while one in 10 expects fewer employees. That’s little changed from the prior survey.

Expectations for more hours to be worked in the future, however, fell to neutral.

In answer to the special questions with the February survey, more than half of firms said they expect production to increase this quarter from the fourth quarter last year, while 28 percent said they see it decreasing.

Nearly half said demand for their products has increased so far this year, while a fifth said it had fallen.

We’re waiting for warmer weather for a lot of reasons. Add clearer economic data to the list.

Tourism funding

The Cape May County Chamber of Commerce has called for the state to restore funding for tourism marketing and promotion back to 2005 levels.

Vicki Clark, chamber president, said a bill in the Legislature would increase the minimum funding for tourism, arts and history.

“This proposed bill would not cause a tax burden for New Jersey taxpayers as this funding is generated by the tourism industry occupancy tax, which was created in 2003 for this very purpose and has remained stagnant since 2005,” Clark said in a statement.

Contact Kevin Post:


More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.