After switching from Peco, one customer sees the danger of a variable rate

July 19, 2011

As printed in philly.com

 

LindaPeterson  of West Chester was eager to switch from Peco Energy Co. at the end of last year.
She signed up for an alternative electricity supplier offering avariable rate that would fluctuate depending upon market conditions.

AsPeterson  discovered, variable rates sure can vary.

For a few months this year, Peterson’s rate was very attractive, indeed. But it went up
58 percent from May to June. At 15.63 cents per kilowatt hour – that’s just the
generation charge – her last bill was about $23 more than it would have been had
she stayed with Peco.

“I knew there would be some variation, but that’s just a huge, huge increase,” said
Peterson, who is semi-retired.

A representative from her supplier, Palmco Power PA L.L.C., did not return a phone call about
Peterson’s bill. But its customer-service department, in an unsigned e-mail,
blamed an “unusual” wholesale price spike for the increase.

“Thankfully,however, shortly after the wholesale price increase, wholesale prices dropped,and our
price billed to our customers dropped accordingly,” it said.

In Pennsylvania’s buyer-beware world of deregulated utilities, Peterson can’t do much but switch to
another supplier. Her agreement, like most with variablerates, does not carry an
early cancellation fee.

According to the state Public Utility Commission, a supplier can bill a variable-rate customer
at whatever price it believes the market will bear, even if the customer
originally thought he or she was getting a discount.

A company also can offer different rates to different customers. The variable rate that is
on a customer’s bill does not have to be the same as the initial price posted on
the PUC’s website, http://PAPowerSwitch.com.

“A supplier could have one rate for PowerSwitch . . . while offering a different rate
door-to-door . . . yet a different rate for enrolling by mail,”Denise McCracken,
the PUC’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “They could offer me one rate . . . my
neighbor a different rate (as long as they are not discriminatingon the basis of
race, gender, etc. of course).”

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where dozens of electrical suppliers are competing, customers
accustomed to a lifetime of regulated utility prices now face a dizzying array of
choices – fixed rates, variable rates, and”green” rates from renewable-power
generators. Next year, Peco customers will begin seeing rates that vary hourly,
according to the market.

More than 20 percent of Peco customers have switched since Jan. 1. But despite promises of
savings, most residential customers seem unwilling to leave the protective comfort of the regulated utility.

On Monday, the Retail Energy Supply Association launched a campaign to educate customers
about the benefits of switching, but it faces headwinds generated bycustomers such as Peterson, who share their experiences.

“My neighbors are very scared about switching,” said Peterson, a clinical social worker with a
small private practice.

Peterson was an early adopter of electricity choice. She had switched suppliers in the late
1990s, when limited deregulation was introduced into the Peco market. Competitive
suppliers eventually pulled out because they could no longer beat the utility’s
capped rates. But when Peco’s rate limits were lifted at the endof 2010,
competitive suppliers returned en masse.

Peterson signed up with Palmco, the marketing arm of a Brooklyn fuel-oil dealer, which posted a
price on the PUC’s website. She liked the company’s low-key marketing,compared
with the blustery direct-mail appeals she received from bigger suppliers.

“The fact that they weren’t doing a lot of heavy marketing, I guess I trusted them
a little,” she said. “I didn’t expect them to escalate the price like that.”

According to a review of Peterson’s bills, Palmco’s rate was very generous during the first
few months. It charged her an introductory rate of 5.78 cents perkilowatt hour,
clearly a below-market 42 percent off Peco’s rate. But by May,Palmco’s rate had
increased to 9.91 cents – just about the same rate Peco was charging.

And then in June came the whopping 58 percent increase – to 15.63 cents per kilowatt hour.
Peterson averages about 475 kilowatt hours a month.

The owner of Palmco, Robert Palmese, did not return a phone call. But his
company’scustomer-service department offered this response:

“Our family has been in the energy business since 1938, 73 years. We know from experience
that it is always in the best interest of our customers to keep prices for energy
as low as possible.”

In an interview in October, Palmese offered reassurance to customers who might consider
his company.

“We have very casual marketing,” he said. “We’d like our customers tolike us. Just try
us, you may like us.

“You are always free to leave.”

 

Our Perspective

HBS is a independent deregulated energy management consultant. We have been providing deregulated energy solutions to our clients since 2000. We have heard stories like the one experienced above, countless times.

While the energy market prices are at their low point, it would be smart to lock into a fixed price contract for natural gas or electric for a minimum of 1 year but also be willing to look at the 2 year option. Fixed priced contracts normally provide a 10% to 15% savings under what Peco ic currently charging.

Do not be fooled by the variable rate options.

It is a good marketing ploy….

no contract…

month to month float….

But you will only pay more in the long run.

 

To learn more about deregulated opportunities for yopur business email

george@hbsadvantage.com

Visit us on the web www.hutchinsonbusinesssolutions.com

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