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04/18/07

Cara Baruzzi , New Haven Register Staff

Most homeowners do not understand their energy bills and feel helpless as they watch them grow increasingly more expensive, according to a national survey by Stamford-based natural gas supplier MXenergy Inc.

Just 30 percent of survey respondents said they understand how their home energy prices are set.

The confusion has become more evident at New Haven-based United Illuminating Co. in recent months as the utility is in the midst of a three-part phased-in rate increase that will boost prices nearly 50 percent, said spokesman Al Carbone.

"We are seeing that a number of customers really don’t understand the components of their monthly bill," he said.

To help clarify, UI prints written definitions of various terms and charges on the back of all customers’ bills. The company also continuously works to educate customers about which components of their bill they can control — mainly, the amount of electricity they use — and which parts they cannot, he said.

Costs such as state and federally mandated charges and distribution charges are out of customers’ hands, he said.

"We’re trying to really educate our customers about what we do as a business," Carbone said. "That is a major emphasis of all our communications efforts."

Amid their confusion, homeowners nationwide continue to worry about escalating costs, with nearly 75 percent expecting energy prices to strain their household budget this year. The vast majority of respondents, 90 percent, said they feel they have limited or no control over rising costs, the survey found.

"This study shows that consumers sense a real loss of control when it comes to managing their energy bills," MXenergyPresident and CEO JeffreyMayersaid in a written statement. "The extreme volatility we’ve seen in energy prices in recent years is likely to continue, so it’s important that consumers understand the steps they can take to keep costs under control."

The survey also found that most homeowners do not understand deregulation, with 60 percent either confused by the concept or completely unaware of it. State lawmakers deregulated Connecticut’s energy market in 1996 in an effort to attract more power generators to the state, in theory creating a more competitive marketplace and lowering prices for consumers. As part of deregulation, UI and Connecticut Light & Power Co. were forced to stop generating power and now only distribute it.

With most survey respondents worried about rising prices, 90 percent said they have made lifestyle changes in the past year to save money, such as using more efficient light bulbs and turning electronic equipment off when leaving a room. More than one-third said they have reduced spending in other areas to offset high energy costs.

"We urge all homeowners to evaluate whether they are taking full advantage of all opportunities to manage their home energy costs," Mayer said.