"We're trying to get to people (who call) as quickly as we can," he said. Customers who have paid their bills on time for the past 12 months can work out a payment plan for their latest bill, he added.
Walker said the area experienced a cold spell in December, dating back to Thanksgiving, and that a "polar vortex" of "very cold air for a sustained period of time" struck in January, lowering temperatures into the teens. Most homes in the area are heated by electricity, and a space heater in a small room will use more of it than a larger-scale heat pump, he observed.
In October, Walker said, the cooperative purchased 61,913 megawatt hours of energy, and "what we purchase is what we sell. . .We don't have a lot of waste." In November, he said, the figure increased to 77,685 and in December, it jumped to 101,322.
"So you can see from October to December, it almost doubled. . .A lot of people say, 'My bill doubled,'" Walker told The Mirror. But "people were using a lot more electricity than they were just two months earlier," and the cooperative's purchase of kilowatt hours rose by 62 percent over a 2-month period, he said.
"The heart of it is just the cold weather," Walker summarized.
Other than raising its service charge by $1 monthly in 2013, "our rates really haven't changed," he said. While "our fuel and cost recovery do change from month to month based on the cost of fuel and what we've been charged," those are lesser factors than the weather for the bills increasing, he added.
Illustrating how much colder this winter has been than in recent years, Walker noted the cooperative only bought 85,272 megawatt-hours in December 2012 compared to more than 101,000 this time. And in December 2011, Upshur-Rural purchased only 90,612, he said.
In fact, the cooperative had not purchased 101,000 megawatt-hours in wintertime since 2010 and 2011, he said.
To hold down bills, Walker urged customers to use heat as efficiently as possible by heating only rooms that need it, and keeping the thermostat set at a comfortable level, but no higher than necessary.
"I've had some people call in and complain about their bill," saying they set their thermostats at 74 degrees, he said. Walker recommends keeping it around 68 or 69.
In addition, the cooperative manager suggested trying to minimize use of space heaters, which are less efficient than central air and thus burn more electricity.
He also noted the co-op's website at urecc.coop has some tools for comparing the costs of different types of heating.
As for possible speculation that the cooperative is trying to make money through the increased bills, Walker pointed out any profits are returned to customers since Upshur-Rural is non-profit.