We are not alone.
The Watchdog prayed that someone in the universe could confirm the complaints of thousands of Texans that electricity companies bamboozle us with excessive and ridiculous fees.
Meanwhile, state regulators look the other way.
This week, a pro-consumer group released a damning report on the failures of the (Public) Utility Commission to protect Texans who shop for electricity.
(Note: I’ve taken away the “P” from the name because regulators don’t care about the public.)
The report from an Austin-based group called Texas ROSE — Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy — states, “The PUC has not done an adequate job of educating the public or the Texas Legislature” about fees charged by electricity companies.
Texas ROSE’s study found 28 different fees that are used by some electricity companies.
Executive Director Pamela Ferris says, “Since Texas consumers are facing increased electric bills due to rising costs and wildly fluctuating temperatures, it is more critical than ever that they have clear and accurate information regarding their residential electricity plans.”
Her report says the UC’s failures do not stop with its poorly managed shopping website, PowerToChoose.org.
The UC has not standardized the names of the fees so consumers can properly shop and compare, the report states.
And it confirms my complaints that the UC has not “reported the existence, let alone the extent” of these annoying markups to the Legislature.
The report calls it “crucial” that the UC “improve their oversight.” The fees, it says, are “virtually unchecked” by regulators and, sometimes, in violation of state law.
Because of these fees, “there was no practical way for the average consumer to compare the actual cost of the service to the amount they are being charged.”
We are not alone.
I asked UC spokesman Andrew (P.) Barlow (took his middle initial away, too) about the report. He replied that the UC has an “unswerving commitment to protecting customers.”
He said the UC is “continuing our efforts” to improve PowerToChoose.
“We invite Texas ROSE to engage in that process as we work to maximize the benefits of the competitive electricity market for Texans.”
Why do fees matter?
The report explains, “These fees can trick people into signing up for a plan that seems to be the cheapest, but then get hit with hidden fees later on, after they signed the contract.”
Some companies “charge you a few dollars each time you want to talk to a person on the phone, or if they need to make a payment at a non-approved location,” the report says. “These fees can add up to quite a lot, becoming a big burden to consumers.”
Disconnection notices can cost up to $20.
Actual disconnect and reconnect fees, charged by some companies, are many times higher than their actual cost. For instance, in our Oncor region, a disconnect fee can be as high as $75, even though Oncor only charges an electricity company 30 cents, the report says.
Oncor only charges 20 cents for a reconnection and doesn’t charge extra for same-day reconnects. Yet electricity companies might charge $50 for that.
Some of the foolish fees that go “virtually unchecked” by the UC:
- Minimal payment fee.
- Third-party billing fee.
- Document processing fee.
- Agent assist fee.
- Minimum usage fee.
- Move-out date change fee.
- Renewable energy selection fee.
PUC is inadequate
Some companies display their fees in their “Electricity Facts Label.” Others show it in their “Terms and Conditions.”
“It can be very confusing for the consumers to calculate their total owed when the information is scattered throughout different places,” the report says.
I find it amazing how the UC can’t even be bothered to recommend standardization to state lawmakers. Such bureaucratic laziness.
Company challenges findings
For this column, I called a half-dozen electricity companies listed as some of the largest users of fees.
Most didn’t want to comment or didn’t return my call.
But I did speak with Richard Paez, regulatory affairs manager for Veteran Energy, which was cited by Texas ROSE for excessive fees.
After reading the report, he challenged the information about his company, calling it inaccurate and outdated because plans change rapidly.
“I truly sympathize with Texas ROSE,” he told me. “I think everyone in the market should want things like transparency, the lowest possible prices for customers and so on.”
It’s not surprising that a company would challenge these findings. I tip my watchdog cap to Texas ROSE because studying the hundreds of plans in search of hidden fees must have been a nightmare.
That’s also the dilemma of the PowerToChoose website. And, of course, the dilemma for shoppers, too.
Clearly, the electricity industry is out of control. It seems to operate in cahoots with state regulators. They’ve teamed up to turn off the people power switch and leave us in the dark.
Thanks to Texas ROSE, we know we are not alone.