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Spike in energy prices prompts emergency PUC meeting

AUSTIN -- Texas regulators have called an emergency meeting this morning after unexpected spikes in wholesale energy prices began driving up rates charged to Texans who have been involuntarily switched to other electric companies.

"Due to the urgent public necessity that may result due to this reasonably unforeseeable situation, this matter cannot wait for the next regularly scheduled open meeting of the commission," the Texas Public Utility Commission declared in an official notice. "Accordingly, the commission must meet promptly to discuss and possibly take action to provide guidance to affected customers and retail electric providers."

At issue are rates charged by "Provider of Last Resort" companies, which are those companies that provide continuity of service when a customer’s regular electric provider goes bankrupt or suddenly leaves the market. In the last month, two companies -- Bridgeport-based PreBuy Electric and Houston-based National Power -- failed to keep up with their financial obligations and as a result thousands of their customers were forcibly switched to providers of last resort.

Rates charged by POLR companies are typically higher than other competitive offers. However, the PUC said spikes in certain wholesale costs have unexpectedly driven up those prices even more.

The wholesale prices in question hit the $2,250 during one interval Wednesday, and were above $1,000 for several interval on Tuesday. Typically, those wholesale energy prices are less than $100.

"The unforeseen and substantial increase in (wholesale costs) caused the rates charged by providers of last resort to also increase substantially -- consequently, this rise in POLR rates was also not reasonably foreseeable," the PUC stated in its emergency notice.

On Wednesday, 15,163 customers of National Power -- including more than 4,000 in North Texas -- began getting transferred involuntarily to other carriers. Customers with fixed-rate deals will go to the high-priced provider of last resort companies; those with variable-rate deals will be transferred to Amigo Energy, which will honor existing contracts.

A woman who answered the phone at National Power's Houston headquarters on Wednesday said she didn't know anything about the company's status beyond what she has read in the newspaper. She declined to give her name -- "I'm just a middle person relaying the information," she said -- and declined to put a company officer on the phone for comment.

Also, as of Thursday morning, the home page of the company's Web site did not include up-to-date, accurate information of its status.

Robin Williams, one of National Power's very frustrated customers, complained that the company has not yet provided a straight answer.

"What upsets me the most is that I was diligent in searching for one of the lowest rates available, and now the rates are two to three cents higher which means I'm going to pay 50-100 dollars more per month," Williams said. "If deregulation is so good for the consumers as ... our legislators keep telling us, then why are the lowest rates in the states found in Austin where the rates are still regulated?"