Teresa McUsic

Save money by shopping around for your electric provider

Keep more money in your pocket by shopping around for utility providers when your contract comes up for renewal.
Keep more money in your pocket by shopping around for utility providers when your contract comes up for renewal. Star-Telegram archives

Our electricity bills are not too bad these days thanks to the low price of natural gas, which fuels most of the state’s generators.

But there are two ways you could likely keep more of that bill in your pocket.

First, don’t forget to check your electric rates every time your contract is up for renewal.

This week on the Public Utility Commission’s rate comparison website http://www.powertochoose.org/, electric retailers were selling electricity for as low as 1.1 cents a kilowatt hour.

Yep, one cent.

Several retailers were around that price for a 12-month, fixed-rate plan, along with offering three- to five-month introductory plans. Even 100 percent renewable plans — which are better for the environment — were priced as low as 5 and 6 cents a kilowatt hour.

When we replaced our central air conditioner last year to a more efficient model, my installer said he found many clients still paying 12 cents or more per kilowatt hour for electricity because they never switched providers.

Doing this audit of what you pay for your electricity becomes even more important with the Hunt family’s $18 billion proposed plan to buy Oncor. Oncor warned state regulators this week that a possible reorganization with that purchase might result in higher electric rates in North Texas.

So, your first step should be to check your rate and change your plan the next time it is up for renewal. If you love your provider, ask them for a better rate.

Become more efficient

Secondly, even with these low rates, it still makes sense to make your home more efficient.

Oncor is starting to release $25.5 million in incentives to help push homeowners into doing just that. The incentives generally translate into big reductions in cost to the homeowner for solar panels, attic insulation, air conditioners and other efficiency measures for houses in the area.

The funding, which is generated by state law from a few cents on our electric bills each month, has increased 34 percent from $19 million for the programs last year, according to Jeamy Molina, spokeswoman for Oncor.

Last month, Oncor’s solar residential program, with $4.4 million in funding, was released, up from $3 million last year.

So far, about half of the money has been taken, said D.J. Douglas, chief executive officer of Fort Worth-based AffordaSolar, one of 28 third-party contractors working under Oncor’s solar program this year.

“Most of the money so far was spent on a wait list from last year,” he said. “We have 25 jobs from last year that are now funded and will do around 250 houses total from our company and other solar companies we work for.”

Combining the Oncor money with the federal tax credit, which was just extended for 30 percent of installation costs for three more years, can get the cost of a typical 5 kilowatt system down to between $8,000 and $9,000, Douglas said.

“The return on investment is still in the neighborhood of four to six years,” he said, for those paying 8-12 cents a kilowatt for their electricity.

You better shop around

Douglas warns consumers to shop around before committing to a solar installer, however.

“There are some scoundrels in the area,” he said. “A lot of companies are not local and they leave after the incentives are gone. Things do go wrong sometimes with the systems. We end up doing service calls for companies that are no longer around.”

Douglas, who has worked for years under the Oncor solar program, predicts that this year’s money will be gone by mid-April.

The program will help offset the costs of solar installations on more than 500 homes, Molina said. Oncor also has $7.6 million in incentives for solar installations on commercial buildings.

The other two Oncor programs — Home Energy and Low-Income Weatherization — are scheduled to begin Feb. 8, according to Oncor’s website www.TakeALoadOffTexas.com.

The Home Energy program, which helps offset the costs of attic insulation, window caulking, 16-SEER central air conditioners and heat pumps, has $15.3 million in it, according to Molina.

The low-income weatherization program has $5.8 million. This program requires proof of low- income status, but the home energy program is open to all levels of income.

Third-party contractors are listed on Oncor’s website for these programs. By law, the contractors don’t have to pass the savings on to their customers, but most do. It’s important to ask upfront, however. Most contractors also will come talk to you about the programs and do a preliminary inspection for no cost.

So start your new year off with cheaper electricity.

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

Saving on Electricity

*Check the Public Utility Commission’s website www.PowerToChoose.org for rates as low as 1.1 cents a kilowatt hour from area electric retailers.

*Check into Oncor’s solar and home energy incentive programs at www.TakeALoadOffTexas.com, or call 866-728-3674. Homeowners must be in Oncor’s service territory. Contact several of the third party contractors listed and ask about their pricing and services.See if they pass the funding from Oncor onto their customers. Find out if there is a fee to evaluate the home. Check contractors record with the Better Business Bureau.