By FRANK JENNINGSElectric bills spiked this winter…and so did consumers’ concerns. Over the last couple of months, MTEMC has had record numbers of members calling in to ask questions or express dismay. But now that the initial shock of higher electric rates has eased, allow me to issue a call to action. It’s time for us as consumers in the Tennessee Valley to take a more serious responsibility for our electric bills. No, consumers can’t control rates, but consumers can control two other factors that make up every electric bill – consumption and efficiency.Let’s start with consumption. Did you know Tennesseans consume more residential electricity per household than anyone else in the country? Yes, we’re number one; and since Americans consume more electricity than anybody, you could say Tennesseans consume more power, on average, than anyone in the world. We need to scrutinize how we’re using power at home. Think about this…it costs less than a penny an hour to burn a 60-watt bulb. Pretty cheap, right? But if you burn that bulb constantly, it will cost you about $4 on your monthly bill. What are you running constantly in your home? A light? A digital photo frame? A television or radio? The “box” that operates your cable or satellite TV uses power 24 hours a day. Modern televisions use power constantly. If you see a little red or green light on your DVD or VCR player, it’s using power. It adds up quickly.Now to efficiency which is a description of your home’s ability to keep outside air out and how well your electronics use power. While we recommend investing in efficiency improvements – like today’s heat-and-air units, advanced insulation or refrigerators – a lot of folks can’t afford that. However, just about anybody can caulk doors and windows. We can all have our heat-and-air contractor inspect our units once a year. We can all change our air filters on a regular basis (ideally monthly). I sincerely wish I could deliver better news on rates. While they’re still 20 percent below national average, the truth is higher rates are here to stay. MTEMC still operates not-for-profit, only charging what it costs to deliver power. It’s just that those costs have increased dramatically, and they are not going to let up. TVA’s clean up at Kingston will cost us, too. We don’t know how much or when; but it’s not going to be cheap. We already send 81 cents of every dollar we collect from our members to TVA (including every penny of the fuel cost adjustment).And there’s more on the horizon to pressure rates. Legislation is coming that will call for heightened environmental measures, and we will pay the tab through higher electric rates. This is not to be critical of environmental efforts. We just need to understand it will cost.Editor’s Note: Frank Jennings is president of Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation.