New Jersey consumers perplexed by elecric-power options

January 17, 2011

 
Posted on Sun, Jan. 16, 2011

By Andrew Maykuth

Inquirer Staff Writer

Pearl Rosenbloom and her neighbors in South Jersey have been getting lots of sales calls lately encouraging them to switch from Public Service Electric & Gas Co. to alternative power suppliers.

The pitches are often long on enthusiasm, but short on facts.

“When you ask for details, they just say, ‘You’re going to save money!’ ” Rosenbloom said.

The Burlington County resident looks longingly across the Delaware River, where Peco Energy Co. customers are rapidly moving into a market-rate environment.

Pennsylvania residential customers have access to a wealth of comparative information on rates assembled by the Public Utility Commission or the state Office of the Consumer Advocate.

But in New Jersey, where suppliers are offering residential discounts of 12 percent and more, consumers are largely on their own when it comes to assessing the data.

“We don’t know what to do,” Rosenbloom said.

J. Gregory Reinert, the communications director of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, said there were too many offerings for Garden State regulators to manage the data on behalf of customers.

“We do not provide comparison data of third-party suppliers or utilities,” he said.

“Customers need to do comparison shopping by either calling or visiting the websites of each company to review the tariffs or promotions, and make their own comparisons and decisions,” Reinert said.

New Jersey’s approach stands in contrast to the model states lauded in a recent industry study of electricity deregulation. Advocates of market rates say competition helps suppress electrical costs by encouraging more efficiency and conservation.

Nat Treadway, the managing director of a Houston firm that conducts an annual assessment of restructured markets, in December singled out Pennsylvania’s system for praise.

In most deregulated states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, customers are free to choose the company that generates their electricity, which makes up the biggest part of their bill. Traditional utilities, such as PSE&G and Peco, are solely distributors of power and do not make money off power generation – even on the electricity they buy on behalf of customers who do not switch.

Treadway, managing partner of the Distributed Energy Financial Group, said the best markets for encouraging electrical choice were in Texas and New York.

By contrast, Treadway called New Jersey’s restructured residential market “marginal.”

Ronald M. Cerniglia, director of governmental and regulator affairs for Direct Energy Services L.L.C., a large electricity marketer operating in several states, called New Jersey’s marketplace “suboptimal.”

He said the best competitive markets set up rules that encourage alternative suppliers to do business while still providing traditional consumer protections.

Regulators in thriving markets also make efforts to educate customers. One way is to maintain websites with neutral cost comparisons.

The Pennsylvania PUC’s papowerswitch.com lists most current suppliers, and some of their offerings. The Texas and New York utility commissions operate sophisticated websites that allow consumers to search for competitive offers by zip code: powertochoose.org and newyorkpowertochoose.com.

The New Jersey BPU rolled out a website for power-shopping after it opened electricity markets to competition in 1999, part of a $13.5 million promotional effort.

But New Jersey’s rates were still rigidly structured, and residential suppliers stayed away. The BPU’s website was abandoned in 2003 and the domain name was taken over by a Spanish pornography site, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

Only in the last year have alternative suppliers planted their flags in New Jersey’s residential markets. As of November, 98,700 customers out of New Jersey’s 3.3 million households had switched to alternative suppliers, up from a mere 213 households in 2009.

By comparison, Peco Energy Co. says 96,000 of its residential customers have switched suppliers, most in the two weeks since rate caps were lifted Jan. 1.

The BPU provides the names of suppliers on its website, but the list appears to be out of date. South Jersey Energy Co. is listed as a residential electrical supplier even though it has been “out of residential for a number of years,” according to Joanne Brigandi, a company spokeswoman.

And in some cases, it is difficult for New Jersey customers to locate even the most basic information from which they can make an informed choice.

PSE&G’s basic-generation service – the price to compare – is listed as 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour on some alternative suppliers’ websites.

PSE&G spokeswoman Karen A. Johnson confirmed Friday that the utility’s price to compare is 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Several suppliers are offering discounts below either price. They are listed above.

Our Perspective:

Hutchinson Business Solutions has been providing deregulated energy management solutions to our business clients for over 10years. Although we currently do not serve the residential markets in deregulated states, I found it prudent to offer some insight to the many residential clients now seeking savings in the deregulated electric market.

Since NewJersey just introduced the opportunity to their residents in the spring of 2010 and Pennsylvania in January 2011, many people have jumped on the band wagon selling electric. 

We get several calls daily from 0ur clients asking questions about saving for their home electric. The first thing that I caution them is to make sure the price that is being presnted is fully loaded and contains all the factors that are included to make a cost to compare analysis. Does it include a 7% loss allowance (to deliver 100 kw of electric you must send 107 kw for there is a 7% is line loss in the delivery of the electricity)  and 7% sales tax. These factors are included in the PSEG and AC Electric price to compare.

The second thing we caution clients to look for is a fixed price. Natural gas prices are the lowest they have been in the last 3 to 4 years. Although they have spiked recently due to the winter cold, prices are still very attractive. Thirty % (30%) of the electric generated in the US is made with natural gas. Because of this, natural gas prices serve as a stong indicator used for electric market prices. By choosing a fixed price, you can lock your position for a 1 or 2 year period.

Variable pricing does not provide this opportunity and is therefore a more riskier decision at this time.

Proceed with caution and make sure to get all the facts before choosing a deregulated residential electric provider.

Read more: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/business/20110116_New_Jersey_consumers_perplexed_by_elecric-power_options.html?viewAll=y#ixzz1BFl4JZXL
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