About 50 percent of Delmarva Power's residential and small-business customers have chosen to phase in the new electricity rates. Under the plan, those customers would delay for about a year paying the full amount of the price increases that Delmarva imposed on May 1. After that, those customers would have higher bills than if they had not joined the phase-in plan.

Under the plan, any customer who did not call and opt out by May 1 is automatically enrolled and will have part of the rate increase delayed. Customers who want to get out of the plan can still do so by calling (877) 285-9316 with their account numbers.

More than 1,000 Delmarva Power customers have switched to another electric supplier in the last month, as businesses and residents moved to avoid the big rate hikes that started May 1.

The number of customers buying power from an alternative supplier climbed from five on March 31 to 1,145 on May 5, an average of 33 customers a day, according to numbers provided by Delmarva Power and the state Public Service Commission.

The customers, most of whom are businesses, are still paying more for power than they were before Delmarva imposed its rates hikes, but they were able to save a few dollars to thousands of dollars a month.

"I think that says we have done the job we set out to do, which is to provide competition," said Delaware Senate Majority LeaderHarris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North, one of the main advocates of the 1999 law that deregulated the state's power industry.

Still, only a fraction of Delmarva's customers have switched providers. The company has 260,000 Delaware residential customers and about 32,000 business customers.

Under the law, Delmarva continues to deliver power over its exclusive grid of poles and wires, but the company's customers can choose to buy the actual electricity from any company willing to sell in the state. Delmarva continues to handle billing and is responsible for repairing power outages and other service interruptions. It makes a profit by charging customers for delivery.

Critics have complained that deregulation contributed to the dramatic rise in prices, while Delmarva and supporters such as McDowell have insisted the rate hikes are due to increases in the costs of coal, oil and natural gas, which are used to generate most electricity in the country.

One of Delmarva's 695 business customers that switched is the Newport company Crowell Corp., which was facing a 102 percent price increase, said spokesman Bob Adelman. After hiring a consultant, the company was able to cut the increase down to less than 40 percent, Adelman said.

Adelman declined to say exactly how much money the company would save annually. For Crowell, which employs 85 people, energy is the third-highest cost of doing business, after labor and insurance, he said.

Delmarva will continue to be responsible for making sure the power flows to Crowell without interruptions, but Direct Energy Services LLC is the company that is providing the power. Direct Energy is a subsidiary of the Canadian energy conglomerate Centrica.

Of the customers who switched, 450 were residential customers who have signed up with Virginia-based Washington Gas Energy Services Inc., which is owned by the large natural gas utility Washington Gas.

Until Washington Gas entered Delaware's market in April, only Delmarva's biggest customers were able to shop for power under deregulation. And until the price hikes were announced earlier this year, only the very biggest customers bothered.

Electric choice consultant, David Mitchell of Wilmington said the response in the past few weeks mirrored the rush by businesses in Maryland to find alternative power companies last year, when parts of the state, including Delmarva's territory on the Eastern Shore, saw the full impact of deregulation.

The very biggest Delmarva customers now get their power elsewhere. About 260 of the 861 customers in Delmarva's Large General Service category -- a division for companies that use a large amount of electricity -- have signed up with another supplier. But those 260 companies use about 60 percent of all the electricity consumed by Large General Service customers, Delmarva spokesman Tim Brown said.

Mitchell, who helped Crowell find a new power company, said that the very biggest companies had the most incentive to switch because they were facing the biggest increases. Small business customers were facing bills that were 47 percent higher, while the biggest customers were looking at bills that would more than double. Residential customers were in between, facing bills between 56 percent and 63 percent higher.

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