Lawmakers Seek to Give Electricity Consumers More Power


HARTFORD — Mounting complaints about power companies have led to a proposal that would enable you to tell from your electric bill if you could lower your rate.

And if you could, new rules would let you switch power suppliers in two days, rather than the up to two months it takes now.

A package of legislative proposals issued Tuesday would impose on the retail power market — which some officials have described as dysfunctional — a range of reforms. The reforms would add price comparisons to all electric bills, make it quicker to switch power suppliers and force power companies to disclose more information about what they charge customers.

Although transparency has long been identified as an issue in the power market, recent price increases have underlined its effect on residents as, without warning, consumer bills jumped this winter because of issues with natural gas supply.

"Consumers need accurate and timely information to make smart decisions about their family budgets," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said to a group gathered at the South End Wellness Senior Center on Maple Avenue in Hartford. "Greater disclosure in the electric supply market is necessary."

Last month, a state report showed that residents buying power from the competitive electricity market are not getting a good deal. Instead, the report showed that consumers were overpaying by an estimated $13.7 million a month.

"At the end of the day, lower costs for consumers means their budgets can stretch further," Malloy said.

The legislative proposal — called the Electric Supplier Consumers' Bill of Rights — comes as more than 1,000 complaints have reached state officials from residents with higher electric bills or complaints about power companies that seem to be constantly knocking on their door and calling their phone.

The bill would:

  • Require that electric bills compare a consumer's current rate and overall cost with what would the consumer would pay under the utility's standard service rates.
  • Shrink the amount of time it takes to switch suppliers to two days, a process that currently can take up to two months.
  • Take variable rate plans, which some say lure consumers with low initial rates only to quickly raise them afterward, and make them fix their rate for at least three months.
  • Reduce or eliminate termination fees to make switching suppliers a less costly process.
  • Require consumer consent for a power company to switch a customer to a variable plan when the term of a fixed plan ends.
  • Seek more funding for regulators' enforcement staff to increase market oversight and allow more effective responses to abuses by companies.

The bill comes as regulators at the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority are investigating how companies market themselves and sell power in the state.

Attorney General George Jepsen said that changing customers' rates with limited warning means "there's some serious dysfunction in the current energy markets" that relies on "consumer ignorance" and consumers' being captured in plans.

A spokesman for Retail Energy Supply Association, the national industry group for companies that market electricity plans, said the increased price transparency, attention to sales abuses and increased enforcement are positive developments.

"There are many details that warrant further discussion and deliberation," said Stuart Ormsbee, the association's New England chairman.

Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz said the proposal would help residents, many on fixed incomes or with limited understanding of English. Stuck with higher prices, she said, some residents have had to lower their electric heat: keep lights off; or choose between paying their electric bills or having money for medication, food or rent.

"One reason we did deregulation of the market in 1998 is for consumers to have choices," Katz said. "But these aren't the choices we had in mind."

AARP Connecticut, which has lobbied for reforms in the supplier market, called the proposal a starting point and pledged to work with the governor and the legislature on the reforms.

"We are also well aware that the devil is often in the details," Nora Duncan, AARP's director in Connecticut, said in a written statement. "We look forward to reviewing the proposed bill language and sharing it with our members and older residents to ensure that the proposed reforms address the most common issues facing electric customers."

On Monday, the organization released a survey of Connecticut residents that showed that 88 percent of older residents are concerned about rising energy prices, and 71 percent say elected officials are not doing enough to help people affected by rising prices. About half said they would support candidates for state office who strengthen consumer protections for electric utility customers.

Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant. To read the full story  click here

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