Teresa McUsic

Complaints are down, but consumers still need caution when picking electric plan

STAR-TELEGRAM/MAX FAULKNER

Complaints against electric retailers in the state are down substantially, but that doesn’t mean consumers shouldn’t be cautious when signing or re-signing their electric contracts.

Texans filed 4,835 electricity-related complaints or inquiries with the Texas Public Utility Commission during its 2016 fiscal year. This is down almost 31 percent from the previous year, according to the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, an Austin-based group of cities and other entities that purchase electricity for governmental use.

The decline is among the largest since the state deregulated most of its retail electricity market in 2002.

“This upbeat report shows complaints have dropped precipitously since the early years of electric deregulation,” said Jay Doegey, executive director of TCAP, in a statement. “It appears that Texans are becoming more comfortable with their electricity providers, and less frustrated with bad actors in the market. This is very positive news.”

Complaints and inquiries peaked in 2003, when Texans filed 17,250 with the PUC. But while complaints have gone down, they still have not reached pre-deregulation levels of about 1,315 annually, the TCAP report said.

The TCAP report said the PUC saw a drop in all but one category of electric complaints over the last fiscal year, including fewer meter and provision of service complaints and those relating to “switch-holds,” or the practice of blocking residential electric service.

Besides filing fewer complaints, Texans also received a smaller amount in complaint-driven refunds during the fiscal year that just ended. Customers received $276,770 in refunds in 2016, compared to $450,183 in 2015 and $421,862 in 2014.

The one area that saw an increase in complaints was the “quality of service” category, which increased by 54 percent to 573.

Texans also aren’t as unhappy about their smart meters as they used to be. There have been no complaints to the PUC over the advanced meters in two years.

While complaints may be dropping, the number of plans offered to North Texas customers in the Oncor territory has increased.

According to the PUC website, www.PowerToChoose.org, there are now 405 plans for residential consumers to choose from in the area with a dizzying array of companies and options.

Prices range on average from 1 cent to 15.6 cents per kilowatt hour for 1,000 kilowatt usage per month.

Homeowners need to know their own usage in order to make the best decision. This can be obtained from your bills, or for a longer-term look sign up for free at SmartMeterTexas.com.

The lowest price does not always mean the best deal. For example, that one-cent plan, offered by Houston-based InFuse Energy, actually shows an average rate of 10.7 cents at 500 kilowatts, while the average rate at 2,000 kilowatts is 7.2 cents.

If your average use is 1,000 kilowatts for the month, you will average one-cent per kwh, thanks to credits that are offered ($90 if your usage is greater than 999 kwh and less than 1,501, and $50 if your usage is between 1,500 and 2,001” But if you use less or more, you will pay substantially more.

The term of the InFuse plan is also just three months, which means you will have to sort through the whole process again soon. And there is a $4.95 minimum usage fee if you drop below 500 kilowatts. Another $5 fee if you don’t enroll in autopay.

This complex plan may be why InFuse received just a one-star ranking by the PUC from its complaint record. The record showed 62 complaints over the last six months, including 29 complaints over billing and 20 for slamming, or switching service without customer approval.

“The truth of the matter is with all the fine print, it is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the plans,” said Jake Dyer, spokesman for the TCAP. “At a certain point, it’s a leap of faith.”

So consider these factors when deciding on your own plan.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

Picking an electric provider

1. Go to www.SmartMeterTexas.com and register your home’s smart meter to see your usage. You will need your meter number and ESIID number, which are on your monthly electric bill. Your meter usage report can be shown in a daily or monthly graph.

2. Go to www.PowerToChoose.org to compare electric retailers in your area. The PUC website will sort plans by zip code. Filters can be used for usage; prices; contract length; plan type (fixed, variable, indexed); plans without minimum usage fees/credits; prepaid plans; time of use plans; company rating; and renewable percentage.

3. Check company history, which includes a six-month complaint record. A low-rate plan may have a higher complaint record.

4. If your monthly usage drops below 1,000 kilowatts per hour routinely, looks for plans without a minimum usage fee.

5. Read the Fact Sheet for any hidden fees or charges.

6. Consider risks before signing up for variable rate plans or prepaid plans. Variable rates can change monthly billing substantially. Prepaid plans typically cost more.

7. Consider 100 percent renewable plans, which receive their power largely from wind farms.

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