New rules are coming to the companies that sell you electricity and the Public Utility Commission is pushing them.
The PUC proposed the changes at its meeting last month, but needed approval from the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. On Thursday in Harrisburg, the IRRC unanimously supported the PUC's proposals.
The first change deals with consumer education and standardized contracts that are in clear language with bold print so customers understand the ramifications, especially in variable-rate contracts.
The second change requires utilities to more rapidly switch customers from one electric supplier to another. Many customers complained this winter that they couldn't get out of what they perceived as bad deals for as many as 40 days. That switch time will be accelerated to three business days.
"If there was an abnormal upswing in prices, the customer will not be caught up in another billing cycle," PUC Chairman Rob Powelson said. "They have portability to move now. We think that's good for consumers."
Utilities will have six months to install the necessary technology to make quick switching possible. Some companies have complained that it's too expensive or too difficult to do in six months. Powelson has a quick answer to that.
"Hogwash," he said.
But during the hearing, there was a surprising dissenter who urged the IRRC not to approve the good consumer measures proposed by the PUC. State Representative Robert Godshall (R-Montgomery) is the chairman of the Consumer Affairs Committee and fierce fighter for consumers.
He's pushing his legislation, House Bill 2104, that would include the reforms adopted Thursday, but his bill would also cap at 30-percent how much an electric bill could jump from one month to the next.
"The only way that consumers are going to be protected is with a cap, just like they are on rates at a bank or on credit cards," Godshall said.
He explained that he wanted to keep pressure on lawmakers to support his more comprehensive bill. He now worries that by approving the two lesser reforms, the pressure is now off fellow legislators and caps won't happen.
"I'm afraid what it's going to do is slow the stronger bill down," he said.
The PUC has not taken an official position on caps. Powelson concedes he doesn't personally support them because he believes they would chase suppliers out of the marketplace and reduce the number of options for consumers.
But Powelson reiterated again Thursday that he will chase out companies that intentionally ripped off customers. He says the PUC's investigation into wrongdoing continues. As of last week, 18,376 Pennsylvanians have called the PUC over high electric bills and 7,300 official complaints have been lodged. Thus far, the PUC has not disciplined any companies.
"I've never stuttered in saying there will be a loud and clear message sent to these suppliers and it comes in the form of licenses being revoked," Powelson said.