Four years into Pennsylvania's much-heralded Era of Electric Choice, it's time to assess.
Is it worth switching electricity suppliers?
Picking plans and suppliers is a gamble, as many discovered, to their dismay, during last year's chilling polar vortex. Since then, the state Public Utility Commission has toughened the rules, to make it harder for shady operators. But never underestimate the creativity of dishonest people.
If you follow a few simple rules and filter out most of the noise, I've discovered, there are ways to achieve tortoise-like savings, without much sweat.
I've gone through my own Peco bills for the 51 months since rate caps were lifted in 2011. We've had four suppliers, all offering fixed-rate plans. Right now, we're locked into one for 24 months.
We've saved 11.4 percent off Peco's generation and transmission charges, the "supply charge" that consumers can control by switching suppliers.
The supply charge is typically the largest item on the bill, so the discount has cut our total monthly electricity outlay by 6.6 percent. That's the kind of expense-cutting that earns some CFOs nice year-end bonuses.
The only month we did not save money was when one of the fixed-rate deals expired and our supplier switched us to a variable-rate plan at 14 percent above Peco's rate - a lesson we'll return to later.
Now come the less impressive numbers.
Our savings totaled $298, an average of $5.84 a month. That's the price of one fancy, frothy beverage at Starbucks. Many won't be bothered with that kind of money. Indeed, most Peco customers - 66 percent - haven't switched.
But for those whose salaries are shrinking in the face of higher health-care costs, or who are on fixed incomes, any savings in monthly expenses is welcome. Especially if it comes without a huge investment of time and no hit to quality of life - it's all the same electricity.
A 2013 report estimated that Peco customers who stayed with the utility the previous year left $164.5 million on the table. That would buy a lot of lattes.
We live in a 90-year-old Chestnut Hill twin and used an average of 548 kilowatt hours a month since 2011. Last year's total was 6,888 kWh. That was about 17 percent less than the average Peco residential customer who doesn't heat with electricity (8,298 kWh).
Find your monthly and annual consumption listed on your bill under "usage profile."
Peco's 176,000 electric-heating customers have a bigger incentive to switch: They use almost double the power of other residential customers, about 16,000 kWh a year. A penny per kWh translates into $160 in annual savings.
Our household's average price per kWh from 2011 was 8.3 cents. Peco's average was 9.45 cents.
But the gap between the market price and the utility's price has been shrinking. Peco's price is 8.59 cents per kWh for June 1 through Aug. 30. That's just about the lowest rate it has offered since 2011.
Right now, only a handful of fixed-rate suppliers can beat Peco's price, which gets adjusted quarterly.
Reporting on the retail energy market and talking to industry insiders, I've made some observations, and I have a few suggestions to simplify your power shopping:
- Limit your search to suppliers listed on the PUC's website, papowerswitch.com, or through the Office of Consumer Advocate (1-800-684-6560). Any supplier that does not openly publish its rate is a risk. Before you sign up, confirm the rate with the supplier, because sometimes the published prices are out of date.
- Don't sign up with a supplier that will provide a rate quote only if you first disclose personal information.
- Don't respond to door-to-door salespeople or telemarketers. This is a good rule for any purchase, not just electricity. Tell them you already have a supplier.
- Say no to variable-rate plans and anything called an "introductory" rate. As some variable-rate customers discovered last year, energy markets can go bad very quickly. Electricity is not like motor fuel, where the price is posted on the pump and you can adjust your behavior accordingly. Variable-rate electricity customers don't know what they will be charged until after they've been billed. It's like ordering from a menu with no prices.
- When your fixed-rate plan expires - you should get a warning letter when it's about to lapse - invest 15 minutes and shop for a new supplier. Until electricity marketers become more than commodity suppliers, there's little cost to you to switch. It's not like changing cable suppliers, where a technician needs to install new equipment. If you sign up with a new supplier, the old one disappears. (If you have a plan with an early-cancellation fee, make sure you wait until you get the expiration letter.)
New Jersey offers Electric Choice, but the market is more opaque, and the state offers no independent one-stop shopping.
I've also compared suppliers based only on a single objective measure: price.
And many consumers want a renewable-power supplier, which typically comes at a higher price. More on that topic at a future date.
WHAT I SAVED
$5.84 a month
6.6% off my total monthly bill
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission posts supplier offers at www.papowerswitch.com.
The Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate also publishes an online monthly price guide at www.oca.state.pa.us/Industry/Electric/elecomp/ElectricGuides.htm. Callers can get it mailed to them free: 1-800-684-6560.