PUC pushes new rules for electricity suppliers - abc27 WHTM

PUC pushes new rules for electricity suppliers

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Ashley Baer remembers the two men who knocked on her door last summer. It was nighttime, they were wearing shorts, and promising to lower her electric bill.

"I said, 'perfect because money is really tight and I have an autistic child,' " Baer said.

With three-year-old son MJ bouncing on her lap, Ashley remembers signing a contract, but not exactly what kind of contract. It was a variable-rate deal with Respond Power.

"They didn't explain variable rates," Ashley said. "They didn't explain fixed rates. They didn't explain any of that."

And Ashley didn't take notice until recently when her price crept to 19 cents a kilowatt-hour. She says she tried to cancel at that point, but had trouble getting through to the company. She would be put on hold or into voicemail and says her emails went unreturned.

She says she contacted the Public Utility Commission and the attorney general's office, but never officially got out of the variable rate deal.

Days passed, the meter kept running, and the price jumped to nearly 40 cents per kilowatt-hour. Ashley is now more than $2,600 over on her budget plan.

"I feel angry, mad, and deceived," she said.

Public Utility commissioners expressed anger, acknowledged likely deception and even apologized at their Thursday meeting in Harrisburg. Most importantly, commissioners suggested new rules aimed at protecting customers like Ashley.

The PUC will require companies to more rapidly let customers switch suppliers. Currently, it can take disgruntled customers as many as 40 days to change suppliers. The PUC wants that reduced to three days.

It will also mandate that variable-rate contracts more clearly explain to consumers what "variable" means.

The PUC says the changes will protect customers. They don't come soon enough to help Ashley and thousands of other Pennsylvanians.

Ashley's welcome letter from Respond Power is full of positivity. It outlines all the benefits the company is offering and promising competitive rates, annual savings and even highlights a contribution to Alex's Lemonade Stand.

But nowhere on the front of the cover letter does the word "variable" appear. It's not until the page is turned over, to where the print is microscopic, that variable is mentioned and explained.

Powelson had harsh words for companies that "hoodwink" customers.

"I can tell you right now, personally, I have zero tolerance," said Robert Powelson, chairman of the PUC. "We're not gonna play the three-strike rule with some of these suppliers."

Ashley is convinced that if she could've switched away from Respond Power more quickly, she wouldn't owe so much.

"I don't think I would've had to pay that if I canceled right then and there, because it was 19 instead of 40," she said.

Earlier this week before the Senate Consumer Protection Committee, utility company executives testified that the technology required to speed up switch times could cost them tens of millions of dollars.

Powelson was not sympathetic at Thursday's public hearing.

"You guys come up with more numbers than the Wharton Business School when it comes to how much this is gonna cost, but shame on you for not thinking this far ahead," he said. "Today we put the utility companies on notice: you own part of this problem, you're gonna fix it."

Commissioner James Cawley apologized during the public meeting and said he understands the heartache that customers are feeling. He also warned everyone about the dangers of variable rate contracts.

"Variable pricing is a month-to-month price," Cawley said. "You don't know what your cost is going to be into the future. You should stay away from that kind of what I would call speculation."

The rules changes aren't automatic. They must be approved by lawmakers, the attorney general, and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.

Powelson said he expects the recommendations to be adopted and implemented by mid-June.


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