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More complaints, town hall to address high electric rates - abc27 WHTM

More complaints, town hall to address high electric rates

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

They've come in the mail and over the phone.

They've been emailed. One woman even stopped into the abc27 studios to tell her story.

Various delivery methods with the same message: Anger over electric bills that have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled.

Tuesday's example is from the Family Worship Center in New Kingstown, near Mechanicsburg.

The electric bill for December was $1,423.11. 

But come January, the congregation was driven to its knees with a $4,146.60 bill. It had a variable rate with Pennsylvania Gas and Electric.

The church's treasurer was flabbergasted. "How dare they?" she said. "How are we supposed to come up with that money?"

A lot of you are asking the same question.

"We are frankly overwhelmed," said Tanya McCloskey, the Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate that looks out for consumers in disputes with utilities. "We've had about 250 complaints that have come into our office in the last week to week and a half."

McCloskey points out that high variable rates aren't illegal. High electric bills don't automatically mean consumers were ripped off. The wholesale energy market did spike and demand and usage were way up. Tanya advises upset customers to dispute the bill with the power company, formally complain to the Public Utility Commission and notify her office.

"We're trying to collect as much information as we can to see if any legal action is justified against suppliers."

Lawmakers are also hearing it. "We've gotten complaints," said Senator Rob Teplitz - (D) Dauphin and York counties.

Teplitz is hosting a town hall meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday at Harrisburg Area Community College's Midtown campus to help consumers navigate a confusing energy market.

And it is very confusing.

If you go to papowerswitch.com, which the PUC recommends, you will find upwards of 75 companies offering deals to supply your power. Most are in the .07/KWH range but they are variable rates. But how is a consumer to make an informed decision on which of these companies to choose?

After the first month, that .07 rate is gone and the variable rate kicks in. What is the variable rate? The companies can't tell you exactly what it is. McCloskey says to ask point blank if there are caps on how high a company's rate can go? If not, pick another company, she advises.

Additionally, the website offers no insight into the various companies other than their teaser rates. For instance, Pennsylvania Gas and Electric is under investigation by the PUC. It is the company most of our viewers are complaining about. So why doesn't the PUC website tell consumer that? Why isn't there and asterisk/red flag/warning next to the companies name that may be bad actors?

 "I'd like to see the PUC be more proactive," said Teplitz. "When I was with the Auditor General's office we audited the PUC's efforts at helping people make these choices and we found that they needed to be more proactive."

Who's overseeing the market? If company X wants to charge .28/KWH, who's checking to see that they paid .28/KWH or close to that? Who's making sure the companies aren't gouging and charging rates way over what they paid for the electricity?

You're not gonna like the answer from McCloskey.

"In the retail competitive market there is no one checking to find out what the actual costs of the suppliers are in the daily operation of the market. That's the concept of the free market."

Tanya also has a warning for fixed rate customers nearing the end of their contracts. Companies are often dumping them, after the fixed rate expires, into the variable market unknowingly.

"Which we find very troubling," McCloskey said "We don't believe that should be allowed."

Some energy suppliers had to pay higher prices when the market spiked, which they passed on to their customers. But, and this is a big but, did they make it clear to consumers that their business model was highly volatile and potentially subject to huge swings when those consumers were signing up?

Bottom line: Customers need to be vigilant and engaged, McCloskey said.

She's in the business, an advocate and an expert. So does she have a fixed rate or a variable?

"I have a fixed rate and I am still with my default service provider (MetEd)."

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